Schools often fail to provide quality education on dating violence — and students pay the price

Comprehensive sex education should begin early, advocates say. But conservatives disagree.

CREDIT: Getty Images
CREDIT: Getty Images

Dating violence in high school is all too prevalent and has lasting consequences. But schools aren’t doing enough to address the problem.

Research has shown that 17 out of 20 high school girls are physically hurt and four out of 20 are sexually coerced when dating. These experiences affect young people’s health throughout their lives, as victims of dating violence are at a higher risk of victimization during college and are more likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety.

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Yet, schools often fail to develop clear policies on addressing dating violence and there is a great deal of variability in how schools teach students about healthy relationships and what constitutes abuse. A recent study in the peer-reviewed journal Violence and Gender found that only 35 percent of public school principals who participated in the study addressed dating abuse in violence prevention policies. Most of the principals couldn’t answer four out of nine questions on a teen dating violence knowledge scale. A majority of principals said they did not have training on addressing the issue and that teachers and staff lacked recent training.

Advocates for comprehensive sex education say schools should teach students, who are often inexperienced in relationships, what healthy relationships should look like. According to the CDC’s most recent data on schools’ approach to teaching students about relationships and abuse, 66.4 percent to 98.6 percent of schools across states addressed violence prevention that includes bullying and dating violence. Approximately 18 percent to 95 percent of schools taught students about how to create and sustain healthy relationships. The median across states was 92.6 percent and 73.5 percent, respectively.

Nicole Cushman, executive director of Answer, an organization that provides and promotes comprehensive sexuality education, said it is unclear from available national data what the quality of these programs are.

“What that data doesn’t tell us is the quality of those conversations and the overall message that is being given,” Cushman said. “That’s why we go back to what we hear from young people, and they tell us that their concerns aren’t really being addressed — that sex ed feels scary, mechanical, or biological, and it’s really narrowly focused on disease prevention and often very fear-based. So if educators are intending to give messages about healthy relationships, it doesn’t appear that they are getting them across.”

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Cushman said comprehensive sex education is key to teaching students about dating violence and preventing dating violence. Comprehensive sex education provides age-appropriate and accurate information that goes beyond the standard heterosexual and cisgender lens on how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections by also addressing gender, relationships, consent, and issues affecting LGBTQ students. And it does all of this in a developmentally appropriate manner.

“Sex education needs to start in kindergarten in age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate ways,” Cushman said. “We’re not talking about sex in relationships in kindergarten and early elementary school … Young people should be able to identify healthy ways for friends to express feelings toward each other, so we start out talking about friendships and ‘What does it mean to be a good friend?’ and how to show positive feelings in a friendship. That same lesson can be applied as they get older to talking about romantic relationships.”

But there has been some resistance from conservatives and local school boards to comprehensive sex education, particularly when it comes to mentioning gender. In the fall of last year, the Charleston County School Board voted to approve a new version of its middle school sex education curriculum and excluded an appendix that discussed how to tell a partner you don’t want to have sex, information about STDs, and qualities of healthy and unhealthy relationships.

In 2016, the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction released its learning standards for health and physical education, and included gender expression and identity under “sexual health.” It was not required for schools to include gender expression and identity lessons, which began in kindergarten, but conservatives were incensed. California parents said Planned Parenthood was pressuring students into sex by partnering with a school district to teach children about touch and consent in 2014. In 2013, Chicago considered a new K-12 curricula on sexual health that would include age-appropriate education on recognizing when people did not want to be touched, but conservatives bemoaned it as “sex ed for kindergarteners.”

Overall, however, Cushman is optimistic that schools are interested in teaching students more about what healthy relationships look like, not so much because of the #MeToo movement, but because middle school and high schools have been paying attention to conversations on preventing campus rape.

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Cushman said the real barrier for educators is often a lack of time to include all of the content they would like in a sex education curriculum because schools are focused on standardized tests and developing reading and math skills. But she said she hopes that educators’ recent focus on social-emotional learning, which teaches social competencies that include decision-making skills, maintaining positive relationships, and managing emotions, will address issues around teaching kids about healthy relationships.

“Schools are devoting more time and energy to curricula that encourage empathy and compassion, and that’s what we’re really talking about here. There are a lot of tie-ins across sex education and social-emotional learning,” Cushman said.

Cushman said that researchers know what is not working, and that less progressive ideas about gender and relationships have been shown to be detrimental to teenagers’ safety.

“We know that people who adhere to more traditional ideas about gender roles and traditional ideas about masculinity and femininity have more negative outcomes, both on things like perpetrated intimate partner violence, but also on greater risk for STDs and unintended pregnancy,” Cushman said. “Those things are amenable to change so those programs can actually help shift young people’s attitudes toward more equitable ideas about gender and power in relationships.” 

It’s also important for sex education programs to focus on what may seem like small age gaps in relationships to students, parents, and other adults, since that age gap can be easily exploited in an abusive relationship, Cushman said.

“What we’ve seen for a long time is that the biggest risk to high school students is when they’re in relationships where there is a large age disparity, meaning more than two years between them and their partner,” she said, adding that even two years can be sizable power imbalance.

“Developmentally, there is a really big difference between a 16-year old and an 18-year old or a 14 -year old and 16-year old, and as people get older, they have access to more freedom and mobility, whether that’s having a car or a job that gives them income. Those things can be used to assert control over a partner,” Cushman said.

“That is something to raise as red flag for parents, educators, and other supportive adults, to talk to young people about why it’s not appropriate and what the concerns are for them to get involved in a relationship with older individuals.”