When Kate McGuckin describes dating violence among teens, passion pierces through in her voice. Her fight is not only with individual instances of violence, but with an entire culture of aggression.
“We live in a very violent society,” said the director of My Sister’s Place, a domestic abuse shelter in Athens, “and the media glamorizes violence. We have a huge barrier trying to compete with the media.”
So, with aid from the Athens Foundation, My Sister’s Place recently partnered with Girl Power! to produce its first sessions of “Teen Power”, a program on dating violence for young teens. More than 40 area girls from ages 8 to 14 attended. The curriculum educated the girls on the characteristics of a healthy relationship, how to recognize abuse in a relationship, and what resources are available if they fear they are victims of abuse.
Teen dating violence is a tangible danger in Athens and across the nation. Studies of eighth and ninth grade students found that a quarter of them had suffered nonsexual violence in a dating situation and eight percent had been abused sexually.
The problem, as far as McGuckin can tell, forms from a combination of early exposure to sex and the prevalence of violence in television, movies and music.
“People are dating younger,” she said. “They are exposed to strong media messages about the importance of being popular, having a boyfriend, and seeking external validation through a relationship.”
In summary: “There’s a lot of peer pressure to be popular.”
So the Teen Power program responded by offering an opportunity for these young women to understand their own power against violent behavior and to prepare them for successful and healthy relationships as they enter the dating world. The girls designed t-shirts, posters and postcards reflecting those themes. The art was distributed to various local venues – libraries, schools, health centers – to raise awareness. Some girls wrote poetry; others cooperated to produce a play.
The key was peer-to-peer interaction and connection, which would ensure the lessons learned in Teen Power could translate into real-world scenarios.
“It was their program,” McGuckin said.
The authorities appear to be taking notice of the problem as well. Ohio passed legislation this last year mandating an education of dating violence in the school system.
McGuckin envisioned Teen Power as a program that could be replicated in the school environment. There is also room for expansion, and McGuckin hopes the opportunity for another session comes up.
“We would certainly like to continue this,” she said.