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The Ugly Secret

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Studies by university researchers and social-service agencies have revealed some sobering statistics:

Up to 41 percent of high school students have been involved in dating violence.

One out of three women under the age of 20 has been abused by a boyfriend.

Sixty percent of battered wives say the violence started before marriage in their high school dating relationships and never stopped.

Despite these numbers, "most adults are unaware that the problem surfaces during adolescence,'' says Bruce Guernsey, project director of the Denver School-Based Clinics.

One reason is that many adults simply find it hard to imagine that a teenage girl, living at home, can be as trapped in a violent relationship as an adult, married woman. These relationships are difficult to spot because girls tend to hide them or mistake a boy's intense jealousy and violent behavior for a profession of love.

But increasingly, girls are telling their stories. Advocates for victims of domestic violence, who in recent years have begun offering programs on marital violence in high schools, were among the first people to offer a sympathetic ear to young victims. And it is largely through them that the problem has surfaced.

Because teenage couples spend so much time together at school, experts on dating violence believe that schools are the natural place to begin educating teenagers about the problem. Barrie Levy, founder and former director of the Southern California Coalition on Battered Women, says that teachers and administrators can often detect signs of abuse among teens.

"As they come and go to class, you may hear verbal abuse or physical threats or see actual physical coercion, such as pushing or pulling,'' Levy says. She advises teachers to confront the perpetrators, because worse may be going on in private, and to question girls whose outward behavior or appearance has changed dramatically.

Schools can also teach about dating violence in class, either by putting the subject in the curriculum or by inviting community outreach groups into the school. Many battered-women's shelters or social agencies have such educational programs.

Paul Bukovec, director of Family Service of Philadelphia's Project RAP (Reducing Abuse Program), and colleague Stephanie Kitchen take their dating violence program to local schools. First, they show Foolish Pride: Dating Violence, an audiovisual slide show produced by Project RAP, and then they involve the class in a discussion about Lisa and Bill, the couple in the show.

"Why did Bill hit?'' Kitchen asks the class.

"Because he was jealous,'' says one boy. "Insecure,'' says another. "He's too possessive,'' says one girl.

"We all have those feelings,'' Kitchen says. "Those feelings don't make people hit. So why did he hit?''

"He's trying to have power over her,'' another girl answers.

"Right,'' Bukovec says. "'He's learned somewhere along the line that hitting works. He's succeeding in controlling her because she believes his promise not to do it again. Men hit because they can get away with it. On some level, society has been condoning it.''

"Why does she stay?'' many of the students want to know; it's also the question most frequently asked by adults. Bukovec and Kitchen offer one explanation: Women are most severely beaten when they try to leave or after they've left.

Dee Graham and Edna Rawlings, psychologists at the University of Cincinnati, offer another theory: the Stockholm syndrome. First identified after a hostage situation in Stockholm, the syndrome affects many captives, who identify and bond with their captors. Women in an intimate relationship that suddenly takes a violent turn, Graham and Rawlings say, are in a position similar to that of hostages held by terrorists. And, like many hostages, these women often come to believe that their only hope of staying alive lies in forging a bond with their tormentor.

Dating violence, experts are quick to point out, almost never begins with physical violence. In fact, most victims say that in the beginning, their relationship was wonderful. At first, the abuse is verbal or emotional. As the relationship continues, attempts at control intensify. Jealousy, possessiveness, and unjust accusations escalate into name calling, belittling, intimidation, and, finally, into physical violence. Unlike date rape, dating violence characteristically occurs in longterm relationships.

If a young woman is in an extremely abusive relationship and wants out, she may need to obtain a restraining order against her boyfriend. A local women's shelter or police station can provide information on restraining orders. It also may be necessary for her to change her class schedule so she can avoid her abuser.

Raising awareness about the problem may be the best prevention, however. "There are agencies all over the country,'' says Kitchen, that "either have, or could put together, a dating violence intervention program for schools.'' -Lisa Wolcott

Among the organizations that offer curricula, inservices, or materials on dating violence for schools are:

Dating Violence Intervention Project
P.O. Box 530 Harvard Square Station
Cambridge, MA 02238 (617) 868-8328

House of Ruth
P.O. Box 457
Claremont, CA 91711
(714) 623-4364

Women's Center and Shelter
P.O. Box 9024 Pittsburgh, PA 15224
(412) 687-8012

Relationship Abuse Prevention Project Marin Abused Women's Services
1717 5th Ave. San Rafael, CA 94901

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