Emergency Exit
June 22, 2020

School-Based Prevention for Breaking the Cycle of Relationship Abuse

Different members from Women’s Advocates’ Staff periodically write posts on topics that are relevant to the work we do as an organization.  While Women’s Advocates is supported by Grant No. A-CVS-2018-WOMADV-00013, awarded by the Office on Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs – the opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice.  

It is 11:00 AM at a local middle school in the Twin Cities.

A young man raises his hand and says, “So, telling my girlfriend that I need to monitor who she follows on Instagram is digital abuse? How am I supposed to make sure she doesn’t cheat on me?”

Another young person in the class turns around and answers him before I even have the chance to say a word. This student, who has been sitting in the second row of my presentation attentively listening for the past 25 minutes, says, “Sounds like you should not be in a relationship if that is what you consider protection.”

They are both 13 years old.

I have been working in schools as a Violence Prevention Educator (VPE) since September 2019. The presentations I have been delivering to students, from middle schools to universities, are filled with information I wish I would have known when I was 13 years old. I explain terms such as gaslighting and teach about the Power and Control wheel – concepts I never heard of until I was in college, but was experiencing since my adolescence.

Sometimes I speak with those who can identify they are in abusive situations, and other times, I meet students who cannot fathom that abuse happens. Evidence demonstrates that domestic violence is a public health issue and affects more people than one might think. 

Important Statistics 

  • One in three girls in the U.S. is a victim of physical, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner, a figure that far exceeds rates of other types of youth violence.
  • One in ten high school students has been purposefully hit, slapped, or physically hurt by a significant other.
  • One in three (36%) dating college students has given a dating partner their computer, email, or social network passwords and these students are more likely to experience digital dating abuse.
  • Eighty-one (81) percent of parents believe teen dating violence is not an issue or admit they don’t know if it’s an issue.

More about Women’s Advocates Experience in Schools

I have spoken to over 1,200 students about domestic and digital violence, healthy relationships, and where to find resources. Out of those 1,200 students, either in-person or in an anonymous comment on a post-presentation evaluation, many have disclosed they have experienced some sort of violence. It becomes more evident just how critical it is for schools to draw upon the expertise of qualified folks (from outside organizations) who are best able to deliver presentations on these emotive and complex issues.

In my eyes, schools have been vital partners in the prevention work that is done at Women’s Advocates. I have had teachers tell me, “I do not feel equipped enough to lead this type of discussion, that is why I contacted Women’s Advocates.” It is great to have health education in schools to engage in discussion and curriculum on domestic violence. In my opinion, it is instrumental in laying the foundation for a healthier life; however, this work has to be seen as a responsibility of all educators and schools. For example, if colleges are solely advocating for academic success without amplifying the messaging of personal well-being and safety, breaking the cycle of domestic violence will continue to be challenging. A new culture needs to be built, one with zero-tolerance for violence, and can ensure future generations are better equipped to break the cycle.

Students’ Response to Presentations in the Classroom

These presentations are changing lives. Take it from some of the students who left anonymous comments on the evaluations:

  • “Thank you so much. I’ve dealt with this before and no one believed me. It’s wonderful that you’re spreading awareness.”
  • “Now, I know what to change about myself to start healthier relationships and I am ready to be a better human.”
  • “I loved this presentation and feel it was a sign for me. I recently left an abusive relationship and my life is changing a lot. This was eye-opening and confirmed my pain was real.”
  • “Alexis – you made me think a lot about how I treat my girlfriend. Thank you for coming.”
  • “I really appreciated this presentation. As a senior in college, I wish I would have had the presentation when I was in high school because I was in an abusive relationship and I didn’t know it until this year. Thank you for the work that you do.”
  • “I won’t make fun of people who stay in abusive relationships anymore.”

A Story:

One moment I often think about is when a student started crying in the middle of my presentation. This woman, let’s call her Martha*, shared that she was in an abusive relationship with her now ex-husband for two years.

“I kept feeling like I was going crazy and I started to believe that I was worthless.”

The classroom was silent, and everyone’s attention was focused on Martha.

“It’s been months since the divorce and he still harasses me on Snapchat. Everyone in my family thinks because he is well educated and makes a lot of money that means he is not capable of abusing someone.”

Martha, like many other victims and survivors, wanted to be heard.

“In court, he told the judge I had to pay him back for every date we went on and every gift he gave me. It was humiliating.”

Unfortunately, Martha is not alone in her narrative. According to LoveIsRespect, nearly half (43%) of dating college women report experiencing violent and abusive dating behaviors. Martha was a third-year college student who had already experienced financial and emotional abuse. It makes me think whether anything could have been different if she heard the presentation eight years earlier.

I have driven to numerous schools to provide presentations on topics that many students had little to no knowledge about, but have been heavily experiencing. Each presentation has taught me that the more schools we can partner with and the more students can become equipped to name the trauma they are experiencing, the closer we are to breaking the cycle of domestic violence.

**Check out our School-Based Prevention Education webpage by clicking here.

*Names included in this blog have been changed to keep the stories anonymous. 

Written by Alexis M. Murillo (outreach@wadvocates.org), In-School Violence Prevention Educator at Women’s Advocates
All Posts