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Initiative to educate kids on healthy relationships arrives at Oakland middle schools


It’s 7:55am at United for Success Middle School in Oakland’s Fruitvale district. Students are roaming the halls to avoid entering their classrooms. Talk of birthdays, high school classes, and juicy gossip are being shared in these last few minutes before first period.

“Very good! Very good,” Mario Hankton says to a group of about 30 eighth graders. “So you can choose how you want to be treated by your dating partner. The next nine sessions we are going to talk about what you can do if you are not being treated the way you want to or how to tell if a behavior is abusive and how to prevent abuse in a dating relationship.”

Hankton is presenting Dating Matters, a brand new two-week program to teach teens about teen dating violence. The initiative is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and is being implemented in Oakland, Baltimore, Chicago, and Ft. Lauderdale. The program is now in its five-year implementation phase at ten middle schools in Oakland.

“The dating abuse usually begins at sixth grade,” Hankton says. “I thought that was kind of young. Dating abuse is never to be tolerated, but sixth grade is even more appalling.”

Hankton says that Dating Matters arose largely due to the fact that kids as young as eleven were reporting being abused by an intimate partner. Dating abuse, or dating violence, can be physical, emotional or sexual. It’s a difficult subject, and one most eighth graders are not used to discussing. It is not surprising, Hankton notes, that the information in the program is hard for students to process.

“You talk about these serious subjects and it kind of touches a nerve so the kids may start laughing or they may say things that are somewhat offensive because they’re reacting to some strong information,” Hankton says.

Student reactions to Hankton are enlightening. During Hankton’s time in the classroom, he posed this example to the class:

“So one girl is in a short skirt, she spends the whole evening with four guys. Two of the guys force her to have sex with them.” Hankton asks a student, “Do you want to share something? Alright, so, who is at fault?”

“Girl!! Girl!! She dressing like a hoe,” the student responds, followed by laughter from the class.

“Hey, no disrespectful language,” Hankton says.

This kind of back-and-forth happens a lot. During the same class Hankton asks all the boys: “If a girl gets you sexually excited it’s okay to force her to have sex: true or false?” All of them answer, “true.” For Hankton, attitudes like these illustrate the importance of talking about dating violence.

“There’s other students who are wide-eyed, they had no idea about any of this,” Hankton says. “They’re like, ‘I thought we just came to school to learn and I didn’t know none of this was happening with children.’ They think it’s a grownup thing.”

But it’s not just a grownup thing. According to a 2008 study by the Alameda County Teen Dating Violence Task Force, 44 percent of young people in Oakland said they experienced being intimidated, physically hurt and/or emotionally abused by a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Natasha Shapiro is a clinical social worker and counsels teens dealing with relationship abuse. She spoke with us about the power dynamic in abusive relationships.

“With abuse there’s a power difference, someone is feeling unsafe physically or unsafe to speak their mind,” Shapiro says. Shapiro said that people tend to think of abuse as only physical, and often downplay or disregard emotional abuse.

“I think people don’t know so much about what emotional abuse means and what that looks like and sort of make excuses for the partner and say ‘oh well it’s not abuse, they just want me to do this’ or something like that,” Shapiro said. She added that, in teens at risk for abusive relationships, low self-esteem can make them more vulnerable.

“A lot of people who are in abusive relationships don’t feel they deserve any better, or they’re really looking for love, and so they might get sucked in,” Shapiro says.

The two-week Dating Matters program starts with how to define caring relationships, then how to identify signs of abuse, and even how to help friends who are experiencing abuse. Most importantly, students get to define what loving, caring relationships are for them and set their own standards for love.

Michelle Aleman is an inquisitive 13-year old eager to participate during Dating Matters.  Aleman says she has friends who have had unhealthy relationships, and she thinks Dating Matters can show them how to have positive ones.

“Love is when you really care about a person and when you don’t … like you don’t hurt that person, or you don’t have responsibility for that person,” Aleman says. “I think it’s really helping us because some classmates have been having those troubles with relationships. Some people think these relationships are normal but they’re really not. Because when you get to bigger things and, you know, probably somebody can kill themselves or something like that.”

Teens who are victims of relationship abuse often don’t have the ability or the resources to avoid their abuser. They might not be able to change schools, move out of their home, or enter a shelter. And when that abuse takes place more and more through social media, parents may have a hard time seeing the abuse. Texts and social networking sites are hard for parents to monitor. But teaching kids how to advocate for themselves is powerful. And Dating Matters does just that: empowers young people.

Dating Matters has five years to raise awareness and to help bring Alameda County to the forefront of Teen Dating Violence prevention.

“This is something that they’re actually learning,” Hankton says. “It’s stimulating, it’s something that can help them as children and as adults. To me the successes in this and the things that I’m most proud of are yet to be seen.”

Carmen Elster is a journalism student at Mills College.

Crosscurrents Education