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Oklahoma ranks high on dating violence among high school students

The rate of dating violence among Oklahoma ninth-graders is more than three times the national average, at 26 percent in the state compared to 8 percent nationwide, according to statistics provided by the YWCA of Oklahoma City.

In addition, nearly 20 percent of Oklahoma high school students have reported being hit, slapped or physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend. That is more than double the 9 percent of all students who report such violence nationwide.

Jan Peery, chief executive officer of the YWCA of Oklahoma City, said those statistics have nothing to do with race, poverty levels or social status — such violence crosses all barriers, she said. Instead, she blames the high numbers on weak laws in the state for years toward domestic violence offenders. And research shows, she said, that children who grow up in violent homes will repeat the cycle of abuse seven out of 10 times.

“We're starting to turn that around,” she said, “but it's kind of like turning a boat around on a dime. Our community as a whole has tended to look the other way. It's not a matter of not caring, it's a matter of not understanding the issues or the impact.”

Amanda Lamirand, a first-year drama and fine arts teacher at U.S. Grant High School in Oklahoma City, said she's been surprised by how prevalent abuse is among high school students.

“Teaching drama, we do a lot of work tapping into emotions and past experiences,” she said. “We did a monologue of a sad memory. It surprised me how many people shared an experience of an abuse situation whether at home or in a dating relationship.”

Lamirand said she's tried to be a good listener for these students, also referring them to school counselors or administrators for additional help.

“I don't think people always realize how prevalent this is among our young people,” she said. “And I don't think students are always taught what a healthy relationship is. They don't always know what's acceptable. There are unhealthy relationships even if you're not coming out with a bruise.”

Spreading the message

To combat the continuing cycle of abuse in young people, the YWCA and other organizations teach awareness and self-defense classes at schools, churches and other youth organizations, but organizers say the message still needs a broader audience.

“This is not a widely discussed subject among children and teenagers,” said Kellen Moore, prevention education specialist with the YWCA Oklahoma City. “When we think about domestic violence, we think about it as only an adult problem, or that only married people experience this. We don't tend to think about it in a teen dating relationship, or we ignore it's there.”

Moore said the YWCA has programs for children as young as kindergarten all the way through high school. The lessons change as children age, she said.

She recently explained different types of dating abuse to a group of students at Edmond's alternative high school, Boulevard Academy.

Physical abuse, she said, includes hitting, throwing things at another person or strangulation. Verbal or emotional abuse includes degradation or name-calling or even just the threat of abuse. Sexual abuse includes rape, assault or harassment.

The students questioned why someone would stay in an abusive relationship. Moore threw out dozens of possible reasons — the victim grew up in an abusive home and doesn't know what an abuse-free relationship looks like, the victim may love and care for the abuser, the biggest reason is fear. Victims often don't have a strong support system, she said. They may feel they have nowhere safe to go or no other friends to talk to.

The best thing other teens can do to help, she said, is to not judge the abused and to not push too hard to convince them to leave an abuser.

“I can't convince you of anything,” she said. “I can only offer my observations and say I'm here to listen. If you want to leave, I will help you find a place to go. I will get people there to be with you.”

Helping a friend

Sarah Logan, 18, a junior at Boulevard Academy, said she had a friend who was in an abusive relationship.

“I told her she didn't deserve to be beaten or cheated on,” Logan said. “Everyone was telling her that. Finally she listened.”

Still, the situation strained the friendship, she said. Logan said she came away from Moore's talk with a greater sense of caution about who she chooses to be in a relationship with.

“I learned that you need to make sure you don't end up choosing someone who might abuse you. And, there are people available to help you.”

Lamirand said children are taught about stranger danger and inappropriate touching at the elementary level, she said, but they need to be reminded at the high school level and beyond, she said.

College students are equally at risk for dating violence or rape.

Sgt. Tim Tucker with the University of Oklahoma Police Department teaches rape-prevention and self-defense classes on request on campus and to groups in the surrounding community. Even though the campus only has maybe two or three reported rapes each year, he said it's important to teach young people to protect themselves.

“Research shows the highest incidence of sexual assault in a person's life is between the ages of 16 to 24,” Tucker said.

Not to ever blame the victim, he said, but people in this age group may put themselves in more compromising positions than someone in their 30s. They also might not have the maturity or wisdom to get themselves out of bad situations.

“The biggest factor we see is it usually involves alcohol, sometimes drugs,” he said “You have a young couple who just met, they're attracted to each other and you add in the fact that they've just had a few beers together, there's going to be little or no communication about boundaries.”

He said he advocates women carry police-grade pepper spray wherever they can. He also says people need to seek medical help immediately if they suspect they or one of their friends has been given a date-rape drug or if they've been the victim of a sexual assault.

Dating violence

For help

Call the 24-hour Oklahoma State Safe Line at (800) 522-7233.

Call the domestic violence hotline at 917-9922.

Call the sexual assault hotline at 943-7273.

Classes

To schedule a rape-prevention, self-defense class through the

University of Oklahoma Police Department, call 325-2864 or go to

ou.edu/oupd.

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