Violence Prevention Begins Early

By Stacey Jones

When news came of Chris Brown’s assault on his girlfriend, Rhianna, the nineteen-year-old singer became the poster boy for teenage intimate partner violence.

Photos were released of a battered and bruised Rhianna, and she allegedly told police that it wasn’t the first time Brown had hit her.

If patterns hold true, it probably wasn’t. According to a 2007 report from the Georgia Department of Human Resources, one in six Georgia high school students reported being slapped or physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend in the prior year. In a CDC-reported survey of New York high school students, 60 percent of teens said they had told no one about their violent encounters. What can begin with seemingly innocuous behaviors such as teasing and name-calling can lead to more serious acts such as physical or sexual abuse.

because you don’t have any other skills or capacity to relate differentlyIntimate partner violence is learned behavior, says Marie Mitchell, program director at Emory’s Jane Fonda Center. “If this becomes your pattern, it will only escalate as you get older, because you don’t have any other skills or capacity to relate differently.” Seeing a growing but largely invisible public health threat, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation launched a program to address intimate partner violence among teens called “Start Strong: Building Health Teen Relationships,” a four-year initiative aimed at middle-school children.

The Fonda Center, whose work focuses on adolescent reproductive health, was among 500 grant applicants to the foundation, which selected it as one of twelve organizations around the country to receive up to $1 million in funding for their own Start Strong program. The program’s goal is to help young teens better understand and cope with their budding sexuality and learn positive relationship skills. “By highlighting positive qualities such as self-respect and respect for others, along with effective communication skills and personal responsibility, we hope to foster an environment where teenage dating violence and abuse is not practiced and not accepted,” says Melissa Kottke, assistant professor of gynecology and obstetrics at Emory School of Medicine and the lead investigator for the Robert Wood Johnson grant.

Mitchell, a registered nurse who directed adolescent reproductive health services at Grady Hospital, ran its “teen clinic” for 35 years, and is now the director of programs at the Fonda Center, will oversee the Start Strong initiative. Her goal is to train teachers, parents, and other community partners in the best practices for preventing teen dating violence. She will be working with Joycelyn Wilson, a visiting scholar-in-residence at Morehouse College whose work focuses on hip-hop culture and African American studies. Wilson plans to use some of the same types of social media that disseminate unhealthy ideas about relationships by using texting, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the web to promote more positive messages to adolescents.

Collaborating with the Fonda Center on the Start Strong initiative are Grady Hospital’s Teen Services Program and the Atlanta Public School system. Nearly 10,000 middle-school children attend the Atlanta Public Schools, in which 75 percent of students are considered low income. A substantial portion of them visit Grady’s teen clinic each year. This fall the Fonda Center will introduce its first initiative with the Atlanta schools, preparing teachers to instruct all 7th graders in a classroom-based curriculum called Safe Dates.  

Mitchell says that, despite its reputation for adolescent awkwardness, middle school is the right time to start prevention strategies. “These kids are so amenable to learning and so eager,” she says. “Older kids think that they ought to know everything. They don’t want you to know that they don’t know, so it’s harder to get them to open up and be receptive to learning than younger kids.”

What is more, she says, American children begin puberty sometimes as early as the 5th grade, and many report dating by 8th or 9th grade. In the brewing cauldron of an oversexualized and violence-rich media environment, it is important to counter those images with examples of healthy teen and adult relationships. Says Mitchell, “I tell them to do better, do different, know better and know different.” She wants the Start Strong initiative to give young teens the skills to do just that.

Stacey Jones serves on the Center for Women Editorial Board and is the current chair of the CWE Advisory Council.