Dating violence – including date rape – is startlingly prominent among U.S. teens, yet a majority of the country's high schools don't have the guidelines to deal with it.
A new study appearing in the journal Pediatrics found that preventing dating abuse and helping victims generally aren't priorities for U.S. schools, which is reflected in the fact that most secondary schools don't have a protocol to deal with it. Dr. Jagdish Khubchandani told U.S. News & World Report that "most of the school counselors would not know what to do" – and the same was true for school nurses.
Jagdish said the reasons for that are various: Some don't consider dating abuse a serious issue, others don't want to get involved in students' romantic relationships; still others don't want to anger parents by getting involved in their children's personal lives.
Eighty-one percent of high school counselors who were surveyed reported that their school didn't have a protocol for responding to a report of dating violence. Conversely, the National Dating Abuse Helpline reports that 1.5 million high school students in the U.S. are physically abused by their significant other every year. One in four high-school girls have been victims of sexual or physical abuse.
Ellen Morgan, a public information officer for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), said that all LAUSD employees are required to report child abuse to local law enforcement and/or the county's Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS).
"Because I am an employee of the district, if somebody tells me they've been a victim, I have to immediately report it," Morgan said. "I can't report it to our school police and let them take it over. That's not legal."
Pia Escudero is LAUSD's director of School Mental Health Services and says once that initial report has been made, the case "takes on a life of its own" in those separate agencies. On LAUSD's end, the case will go to the school's crisis team, which can include school nurses, social workers or counselors; they, in turn, will look to the plan their school is mandated to have regarding how to deal with abuse. This plan varies depending on a school's resources, but it directs crisis teams on where they can refer their students for whatever on-site or off-site medical or mental health care they might need.
Escudero said the problems highlighted in the study aren't really the issue in LAUSD.
"I don't think that would be the issue today," she said, recalling allegations of teacher-on-student abuse that have plagued LAUSD in recent months. "Especially with our district, which has been inundated with a hyper-vigilance toward abuse. Today I know every adult on our campus is a mandated reporter and will report."
As far as happens after that report is made, though, Escudero says the district doesn't have a whole lot of control.
"Our mandate is to report – we don't investigate," she said. "The investigating agency is law enforcement or DCFS."
The main issue she sees is the stigma associated with reporting an abusive relationship.
"Our students don't report it enough," she said. "There's a stigma in reporting it among their peers or telling adults about it, so I think the issue is how to do we empower our students to get help."
LAUSD has made several attempts at that through broad-based efforts to promote help-seeking behavior, as well as partnering up with organizations like Peace Over Violence. The district's school board also unanimously approved a resolution last year aimed at preventing dating violence among teens, in the wake of the death of 17-year-old high school student Cindi Santana.
But resources are slim, says Escudero, and there's still the underlying problem of a culture of tolerating violence.
"It really is an issue of breaking the cycle of violence," she said, explaining that many children in the district witness a lot of violence at home. "It's a much larger issue than what we do operationally."
The Pediatrics study found that most schools report dating violence by calling a parent or local law enforcement. Fewer referred students to child protection services or places they could get legal or medical advice.
Escudero said LAUSD leaves the legal aspect to the investigating agencies, and does as much as it can regarding other services, including linking families with the Victims Assistance Program when applicable.
"It's really addressing the silence of accepting something that is not OK being done to you, and not getting help," she said. "We need to really empower females as well as males to accept relationships that are healthy and connections with peers that are peaceful, and not violent."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on dating violence and resources on where to get help here.
Photo by Mrs TeePot via Flickr Creative Commons.