By Buffy Queen • Guest Columnist
As the middle school girls trailed out of the classroom one morning last spring, I began packing up my materials after sharing my last “Safe Dates” session at their school. My Safe Dates topic for this fourth, final session had been “How To Avoid Sexual Assault.”
I noticed a folded-up piece of paper on top of my stack of folders. I opened it and began to read a handwritten note that two girls must have passed back and forth during class. The note started out innocently enough and I smiled as I read it, thinking it must have fallen on the floor and someone had picked it up and put it on my folders, believing I must have dropped it.
“What do you think of .... ”
“I think he’s cute. I think he likes you.”
“Really? He talked to me today before school.”
What I read next stunned me, though. This part must have been written during the time we were discussing date rape and how to be safe.
“I was assaulted yesterday. I want to cry.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“I don’t know what to do. I feel terrible.”
“You should tell someone. If you want to talk tonight, my number is ....”
“I won’t be home till eight. You can call me, too. My home number is ....”
“Thanks, I’ll call you later.”
The classroom was now empty. I sat down in one of the student desks and took a deep breath. I realized that it was no accident that someone had put the note where I would find it. I finished packing up and left the classroom, quickly finding the guidance counselor with whom I had been working. After she read the note and I shared with her how I had gotten it, she calmly began to follow through. Although we had no names on the note, the school secretary was able to enter the phone numbers in the school database and matches came up with the names of two of the students who had just been in my class.
Later that day, the counselor told me she had called the two girls into her office and, with great sensitivity and concern, discovered what had happened. She found out that one girl had been molested after school by two boys the afternoon before. She was not raped, but was assaulted. The principal and parents were informed and the boys who committed the alleged abuse were interviewed by the police. I don’t know if they were prosecuted or not, because they were juveniles.
But I do know that the young teen who was assaulted would probably never have had the courage to share her story with a friend, and the friend wouldn’t have had the courage to leave the note for me to “discover,” if the “Safe Dates” class hadn’t been held.
Teen dating violence is a serious, hidden occurrence in our middle and high schools and is receiving special attention by the N.C. Governor’s Crime Commission.
The National Conference of State Legislatures has this posted on their Web site: “The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that destructive relationships during the teen years can lead to life-long unhealthy relationship practices, may disrupt normal development, and can contribute to other unhealthy behaviors in teens that, if left unchecked, can lead to lifelong problems.”
The CDC’s 2007 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System survey indicates that “adolescents who report being physically hurt in a dating relationship were also more likely to report that they engage in risky sexual behavior, binge drink, use drugs, attempt suicide, and participate in physical fights.”
Further on, they added: “Policymakers can play a role in preventing teen dating violence. At least seven states have laws that urge or require school boards to develop curriculum on teen dating violence. States have also adopted teen dating violence awareness weeks or months, in an effort to draw the public’s attention to a national campaign that promotes prevention, safe dating practices and offers information and resources. In 2009, at least five states — Delaware, Hawaii, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Utah — declared a prevention week or month in February.
Twenty percent of 13- to 14-year-olds in relationships said they knew friends and peers who had been kicked, hit, slapped or punched by a boyfriend or girlfriend. If the teen is even aware they can get protection from the abuser by getting a 50B or Domestic Violence Protective Order, they must get an adult to sign it. If the abuser is in school or class with them, it gets very messy changing schools, class schedules, lunch schedules, required classes, etc.
People who use violence with their dating partners as adults often began doing so during adolescence, with the first episode typically occurring by age 15. Young women between the ages of 14 and 17 represent 38 percent of those victimized by date rape. Rapes by acquaintances account for 60 percent of all rapes reported to rape crisis centers.
Across the United States, there are currently seven states that have laws urging or requiring school boards to develop curriculum on teen dating violence. I believe North Carolina should seriously consider that also.
Although my fourth session for these students was “How to Avoid Sexual Assault,” my third session was “How To Help A Friend Who’s Being Abused.” Talk about timing. There’s no way to know what future trauma may have been avoided by the quick intervention of the counselor and principal. It provided the young teen a chance for the healing process to begin. It provided a serious “wake-up” call to the boys. And it provided the teen survivor’s friend with positive recognition for the courageous, compassionate action she showed when she put that note where I would find it.
(Buffy Queen works with REACH of Haywood County as its Community Educator. Feb. 1-6 was National Teen Dating Violence Awareness Week.)