Nearly 1.5 million high-school students in the U.S. are physically abused by dating partners every year. More than one-third of 10th-graders (35 percent) have been physically or verbally abused by dating partners, while a similar percentage are perpetrators of such abuse. Youth from low-income backgrounds, those from marginalized racial and ethnic groups, and LGBTQ students are at the greatest risk of experiencing such harm.
The consequences are devastating. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that adolescents who experienced teen dating violence were more likely than those who didn’t to report being bullied on school grounds and missing school due to feeling unsafe. Victims of dating abuse are also more likely to experience depression and anxiety, and to consider suicide, than their non-abused peers.
All of this negatively affects academic achievement. Yet in the face of mounting evidence of harm—and several decades of research and analysis—addressing teen dating violence remains a low priority in public schools, according to a new report published in the peer-reviewed journal Violence and Gender.
For the study, researchers surveyed a nationally representative sample of high-school principals on their knowledge of teen dating violence—defined in the study as verbal, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse—as well as their schools’ policies, and their beliefs about the role of school personnel in both preventing dating abuse and assisting victims. The four-page questionnaire was sent in the 2015-16 year to 750 randomly selected public-school principals, with a 54 percent response rate.
Although a majority of high-school principals (57 percent) had assisted a teen dating-violence victim in the past two years, more than two-thirds of respondents (68 percent) said they lacked formal training, and a majority (62 percent) reported that teachers and staff in their schools hadn’t been recently trained, either. Less than a third (30 percent) posted information on teen dating violence that was easily available and accessible to students—posted in hallways or the cafeteria, for example—and just 35 percent specifically addressed dating abuse in their school’s violence-prevention policies.
Further, when principals were presented with several options and asked to identify the largest barrier to assisting student victims, the second most-common response—following lack of training—was that “dating violence is a minor issue compared with other student health issues we deal with.”
According to Jagdish Khubchandani, the associate professor of health science at Ball State University and the study’s lead author, some school principals are hampered by faculty and staff without sufficient skills and training; others, meanwhile, mistakenly perceive dating violence as a typical, trivial teenage problem.
Principals who overlook or minimize relationship violence, the researcher said, lose sight of the most important consideration: student welfare. “They have some awareness that this is happening in their school, especially if they're assisting victims periodically,” he said. “If they choose not to take action, for me, they are a bystander.”
The study exposed multiple instances of high-school principals seemingly misinformed or uninformed on teen dating violence. For example, respondents were most likely to assume that counselors and parents are preferable to students’ peers in assisting victims. Ninety-three percent of principals said they referred student victims of dating violence to counselors, while 85 percent said they informed the victim’s parents or guardians. Yet federal data indicate that many public schools, particularly high-poverty campuses, lack counselors. What’s more, some parents have their own misconceptions and myths about dating abuse, such as the belief that partner abuse must be physical by definition.
Only 36 percent of principals included in the study believed that students have a major role in assisting survivors. “I think that’s lack of insight on the principals’ part,” Khubchandani argued, suggesting the principals are unwilling to acknowledge students’ role in helping their peers cope with and prevent dating abuse.
Maria De Leon, a senior at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis, teaches her classmates about dating violence. A member of the Domestic Violence Network’s middle- and high-school Youth Network, De Leon plans activities to inform students about unsafe or unhealthy relationships. She’s also a student leader with the “No More Club,” which seeks to end the silence on dating abuse. De Leon, who has seen her peers being physically and emotionally abusive to one another, now recognizes the red flags—and she wants more support for victims from the adults in her school building.
“I think we have to start with the principals at the schools, because they’re the leaders,” she said. “That way we can have trust in them [and] come to them if we’re in that situation.”
Lindsay Stawick, who directs the Domestic Violence Network’s youth programming, said most inquiries for dating-violence-prevention training come from teachers—at De Leon’s high school, for its part, it was a social worker. Stawick said she’s never received a request from a principal to provide training to their students or faculty—a reality she interprets as a hindrance to real progress on the issue.
“My goal in schools and with young people is to change the culture that leads to violence,” Stawick said. “Me coming in to do a three- or four-day program in a classroom is really great, but the entire school environment has to change for real change to happen.” As an expert in the field, she said that requires buy-in from school leaders.
Bob Farrace, the public-affairs director for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said he encourages high-school principals to take an honest and transparent look at their own data, identify the trends in teen dating violence incidents, and address them appropriately.
While he called the study’s findings “deeply troubling,” he said that dating abuse hasn’t been cited specifically by principals as an area of focus for the national organization, alluding to state policies that oversee teen dating violence training and education.
Dozens of states have enacted legislation that addresses teen dating violence, according to research compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures. As of July 2014, at least 22 states had passed laws that “allow, urge or require school boards to develop or include curriculum on teen dating violence.”
Still, school leaders are not dependent on state mandates to act. Nikkia Rowe, the principal of Renaissance Academy High School in West Baltimore, teaches a dating-abuse-prevention curriculum to ninth-graders. Violence is a learned behavior, she explained, so she puts the burden on educators in her school—located in an impoverished black neighborhood—to focus on helping students, both victims and perpetrators, navigate trauma and learning their individual stories to shift behaviors and attitudes.
“Schools are the training ground to address the abuse and to create that change of mind [to] change those habits,” Rowe said. “Ultimately, those patterns that we see in schoolhouses continue into adulthood … if they're not receiving those lessons and those supports at home, we're obligated to do it.”