When Teens Are in Violent Relationships, Should Principals Step In?

By Arianna Prothero — September 25, 2019 4 min read
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Are high school principals responsible for intervening in the romantic relationships of their students that have turned abusive?

That question—which brings up a host of others about just how expansive the roles of educators should be in the lives of their students—is explored in a new survey of school leaders on the troubling topic of teen dating violence.

One of the most striking findings is that even though more than half of principals reported dealing with an incident of teen dating violence in the recent past, many aren’t clear about what their role should be.

Most principals—68 percent—say they have never received any formal training on how to respond to dating violence among teens, and three-quarters say their school did not have a protocol for handling it.

Facing such a scenario is not atypical for principals—57 percent say they had helped a victim of dating violence in the past two years.

Exactly how common dating violence is among teens is difficult to pin down—estimates vary widely. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 1 in 11 female high school students, and 1 in 15 male students, said in recent surveys they have been victims of physical dating violence in the past year. When it comes to sexual dating violence, 1 in 9 female high school students and 1 in 36 males report being victims within the last year.

“I feel like the fact that [principals] do not have a protocol to respond to an incident of dating violence, physical abuse, sexual abuse, is just a little disconcerting,” said Jagdish Khubchandani, a professor of health science at Ball State University in Indiana, and one of the researchers on the study.

Dating violence can also include psychological aggression and behaviors such as stalking victims in-person or online.

So how did principals handle dating violence? The vast majority—96 percent—referred victims to school counselors.

But Khubchandani found in an earlier study that school counselors and nurses are struggling mightily to help victims because, they say, of a lack support from school administrators.

Of the principals who intervened in a violent teen relationship, 85 percent say they had told the victim’s parents and 74 percent say they reported it to police.

As far as the perpetrators go? Seventy-three percent of principals say they did not discipline the perpetrator.

In schools that had a protocol for addressing abusive relationships between students, principals reported helping more victims and disciplining more perpetrators.

Principals Not Well-Informed on Teen Dating Violence

The researchers also found that principals are not always well-versed in the issue.

On a short questionnaire gauging principals’ knowledge of teen dating violence, most were unable to answer four of nine questions correctly. The questions asked, for example, how common dating violence is and what long-term effects victims of dating violence suffer.

The majority of principals did not feel that health teachers or peers should have a major role in helping victims, even though studies of adolescents have found that teachers and peers are among the people teens trust the most, the study’s authors said. Only 31 percent of principals know that victims often talk about their abuse with fellow students.

Where principals and schools seem to be the most proactive is around educating students about dating violence. Eighty-one percent of principals say their school educates students about healthy dating relationships and 71 percent say they educate students about preventing dating violence specifically.

To date, there hasn’t been much research on how school administrators handle dating violence among their students, said Khubchandani. The survey, which used a random and nationally representative sample of secondary principals, provides new insight into the issue.

Principals listed a number of barriers that prevent them from helping victims. The most common—cited by 43 percent of principals—is a lack of training for school personnel. A little over a third of principals say dating violence is minor compared to other student health problems they see in their schools. A quarter of principals say their school does not have enough staff to tackle the issue.

Dating violence, especially if it isn’t addressed, can affect students—both victims and perpetrators—for a long time, said Khubchandani.

“These romantic relationships that are abusive have a life-long impact,” he said. “Many victims will continue to be victims because they accept it has a norm of society when they are not given help, and the perpetrators ... will continue to be perpetrators because no one is disciplining them or educating them.”

Schools are positioned to make a difference.

“Parents cannot do much if the child is at school for eight hours,” Khubchandani said. “Fifty million children go to school across the United States every day ... It’s an opportune avenue, a good place to inculcate some healthy behaviors.”

Furthermore, schools may increasingly have a legal responsibility to prevent or respond to dating violence among their teenage students.

Over 20 states have laws that address teen dating violence, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The vast majority of those states either require or recommend that schools adopt a policy for responding to teenage dating violence or teach students and personnel about the issue.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.