By Aaron Mendelson
Educators and health professionals are seeing kids dating earlier than ever — and along with that new reality a need to teach middle-school students about the dangers of dating violence.
The trend has prompted creation of Dating Matters, a nationwide pilot program developed and funded by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and currently being tested in four cities nationwide, including Oakland.
Dating Matters cycles through Oakland schools, and this month, students at Lighthouse Community Charter School in East Oakland are participating in Dating Matters.
On a recent school day in the Lighthouse school library, Kirstie Mah teaches a lesson from the Safe Dates curriculum about abusive relationships. The class discusses the behavior of a hypothetical abusive boyfriend.
“He emotionally hurt her. He called her a slut and mean stuff,” one student offers.
“Right,” Mah responds. “And why did he do that?”
“’Cause of the way she was dressed,” another student says.
Mah continues the thought: “So he thought she wasn’t dressed appropriately. Do you think he should be able to tell her what to do and what to wear?” A handful of students answer: “No.”
Later in class, students split up into small groups, taking turns placing themselves in the shoes of a victim of dating violence. As the day wraps up, they discuss gender expectations. Mah draws a box on the whiteboard, and the class free-associates ideas about women and girls. Mah writes down words like “cooking” and “makeup” in red ink. “Spectacular” and “smell good” also make the list.
“Are these expectations fair?” Mah asks. “Where do you think we get these expectations from?”
Students agree that the expectations aren’t fair, and segue into a discussion of where these perceptions come from.
The Dating Matters classes cover issues from why abuse happens, to identifying red flags and talking about gender roles. The initiative is funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Oakland is one of four U.S. cities with a grant for the Dating Matters classes, and the only city on the West Coast.
The program is in its third year in Oakland, part of a five-year pilot. The 10 schools participating in Dating Matters implement one of two approaches. Half the schools feature instruction for eighth-grade students—this is the Safe Dates curriculum that Kirstie Mah teaches at Lighthouse. The other five schools feature classes for sixth through eighth-grade students, and also outreach to parents and educators. After five years, the CDC will review the results from both approaches.
“Our middle school students are dating,” says Caroline Miller, who manages Dating Matters for the Alameda County Public Health Department. “I know we often think that ‘maybe by eighth grade, high school definitely.’ But I would say they’re dating earlier and earlier.”
In the digital age, teens can easily bully and stalk one another. Miller says that classes remind teens that “anything that we put online or that we share, it’s almost like a tattoo. It’s forever.”
Miller says that “associated risk factors” — such as drug abuse and bullying — suggest that “teen dating violence may be occurring more” in Oakland than in other cities. Nationally, the CDC estimates that physical, verbal and emotional abuse affect a quarter of adolescents every year.
February marks National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month, which seeks to bring attention to the issue. President Barack Obama recognized the month in a proclamation, writing that “dating violence can affect anyone.”
Dating Matters focuses on dating violence and healthy relationships, but other issues in teens’ lives sometimes surface. Miller says that violence, substance abuse and teen prostitution have come up in classes. “They’ve been really honest about their reality and what they see,” Miller says of students.
Valeria Corona, 13, is an eighth-grade student at Lighthouse Charter School, taking Dating Matters this month. Corona says that the subject of teen dating violence “was new to me, and it surprised me how much that happens and how people don’t stand up for themselves.”
Corona says she’s not dating anyone right now, but that some of her classmates are. She’s glad that she and her friends are learning about dating violence. “We’re going to go into high school, and people are going to change,” Corona says.
If the classes came later, she says, it might be too late.