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Students educate peers about domestic violence

By Jeffrey Obser Daily Planet staff
Tuesday October 30, 2001

As dating and relationships become more common in the early teen years, Berkeley High students have been raising awareness about domestic violence by conducting peer education in middle school classes. 

At Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School on Monday, Kate Aughenbaugh’s seventh-graders heard how to recognize the warning signs of an abusive relationship, how to respond when a friend is in one, and what forms domestic violence can take – from physical to mental and emotional. 

“I see so many people who are in these situations and they need this, but they’re already in high school and they’re in the middle of it,” said Maeve McGovern, a junior who co-led the class with junior Molly Baldridge. 

Asking questions first, and then unfurling posters to explain the answers, the peer educators taught the class how to identify domestic violence, distinguish it from non-threatening arguments, and recognize that it takes many forms: Physical, verbal, mental, emotional and sexual. 

“It can also be where a lady batters a guy,” one boy offered, to nods of approval from the teachers. 

McGovern counted off the students from one to three, then asked everyone numbered one to rise. 

Now, one in three kids are at risk of being abused in a relationship by age 21,” she said. “How does that make you feel?” 

“Sad,” said one voice. 

Citing a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the Family Violence Prevention Fund’s August newsletter said one in five of high school girls report being physically or sexually abused by a partner – with the incidence rate much the same across racial and ethnic lines. These young women experience higher rates of substance abuse, eating disorders, and other problems, the newsletter said. 

Leuckessia Herse, the teen program coordinator at A Safe Place, an Oakland nonprofit giving outreach to schools and public agencies, said teens are especially vulnerable to getting trapped in bad relationships for two reasons: They don’t always recognize they’re in them, and if they do, they don’t know where to turn. 

“A lot of teens out there are pretty frustrated, they don’t feel like they can express what’s going on with them, and they don’t feel like they can be understood and have some action taken behind it,” Herse said. 

Teens are having relationships earlier than they used to (in order) to make up for the attention and companionship that have missed because “between family, friends and community, something is falling short,” Herse said. 

“Having a lack of those things is causing a lot of the issues with violence,” she said. “People who have been abused are abusing back. It seems like it’s a part of the whole cycle of violence, which is another thing we try to talk to them about.” 

At the classroom presentation on Monday, the cycle of violence was illustrated as three stages on a circle diagram: During “tension-building,” the abusive mate gets angry over small things and may be jealous. “Acute battery,” the second phase, sees open abuse. Then comes the “honeymoon” – remorse, presents, promises. 

“Which two might fade away over time?” Baldridge asked. 

Most students responded correctly. Sometimes, only the abuse is left. 

Shannon Singleton-Banks, the peer education coordinator at Berkeley High, said her student volunteers taught seventh and eighth graders at Berkeley Alternative School, Longfellow Middle School, and King in the last few years, as well as at Berkeley High. 

At Willard Middle School, she said, teachers give domestic violence education.  

Banks’ biggest challenge, she said, “is to get the guys to come and be a part of this peer education thing,” Banks said. 

Debbie Arthur, who coordinates the domestic violence prevention program for the Berkeley Department of Health and Human Services, said peer education was especially valuable for domestic violence because “young people, as opposed to turning to adults for advice, sometimes turn to their peers.” 

“We’re basically talking about power and control, and how they can be used to intimidate people, and also about attitudes and beliefs that we have in terms of how we treat each other and how does that play out in the school community,” Arthur said. “Relationship violence often starts during the teen years and may continue into the adult years as domestic violence, and it’s this continuum that we really want to prevent.”