By Anna Denson
Article also appears in The Mountaineer.
I can really only remember one date from high school. I went out for sushi with a nice boy named John, who I’d known since kindergarten. I have no idea what we talked about, or what I wore, or what we did afterwards. All I remember is sitting in that restaurant, horribly self-conscious, suffering under that keen social anxiety to be cool, to prove myself worthy. I’ve always been a people-pleaser, and that night it was desperately important that John be pleased with me.
It quickly turned out that John and I worked better as friends, and now he’s married with a new baby. But I still remember that vulnerable feeling.
Dating can be a trial at any age, with new relationships creating a maelstrom of excitement, nerves and self-doubt, but never is this truer than for a teenager. Still learning how to define themselves and navigate society, teens often feel enormous pressure to ingratiate themselves to their peers. When forming relationships, this can leave teens susceptible to coercion, emotional manipulation, or even violence.
When considering domestic violence, we don’t always think about abuse in teenage relationships, but up to 38 percent of high school students report having been a victim of dating violence, which can begin as early as fifth grade.
In response, February has been declared Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, to help address this oft-overlooked issue.
There are existing programs to combat dating violence. One such is the Safe Dates program, a national initiative delivered on a local level — including in Haywood County.
The local program is sponsored by REACH of Haywood, an area nonprofit that supports survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and elder abuse. Safe Dates is taught by REACH’s community educator, Buffy Queen, who was accredited by Hazelden Foundation and has been facilitating the program in Haywood since 2008.
Queen operates school-centric Safe Dates classes at Waynesville Middle School and Canton Middle School, reaching as many as 800 students a year. Each class meets for three or four sessions to learn about creating healthy relationships and how to recognize and escape from dating violence. Through an engaging and interactive curriculum, Safe Dates addresses:
— How to treat/be treated by a dating partner
— The signs of an abusive dating relationship
— Why dating abuse happens, with causes and consequences
— How to cope with feelings of anger and jealousy, as well as gender stereotyping
— How to help a friend who might be in an abusive relationship
— Issues surrounding sexual assault
Safe Dates is a tool of both prevention and intervention against dating abuse, for teens who are single and those who are already in dating relationships. While the program does not promote dating for young teens, it aims to prepare students for the future by prodding them to think about positive romantic relationships.
The program can also serve as a gateway for students to address the presence of violence or sexual assault in their lives. Queen recalls an instance that took place after one of her eight-grade classes on sexual assault, when she found a note written between two of her female students:
Student 1: What do you think of [boy]? Does he like me?
Student 2: I think so. He was talking about you yesterday.
Student 1: I’m scared. I was sexually assaulted on the school bus yesterday, and I don’t know what to do. I just want to cry.
Student 2: I’m sorry! That happened to me when I was 7. Here’s my phone number if you want to talk.
Queen immediately notified the school counselor. Details included in the note enabled school authorities to identify the students and offer support, as well as apprehend the abusers.
Without information from the Safe Dates program, Queen wonders if the girls involved would have found the courage to approach each other about their experiences and, ultimately, to accept help.
Safe Dates exists as a growing resource for vulnerable teens. The program, which is already helping students across the county, is also slated to re-launch at Bethel Middle School in March after a hiatus of several years. Queen is excited for the re-launch, citing the importance of reaching teens across Haywood.
Karla Phillips, who teaches health at Waynesville Middle School, also expressed enthusiasm for the Safe Dates program.
“It is such an asset to have Buffy Queen and the Safe Dates program incorporated into my health curriculum,” she said. “The information presented in the program gives my students knowledge in understanding the importance of healthy relationships and communication skills. Ms. Queen does a great job in presenting the information and my classes really enjoy her program. The program also teaches the students about an important community resource we have in REACH of Haywood.”
REACH also encourages the program for private institutions, after-school programs, youth groups and faith-based organizations.
By helping teens, parents, and grandparents in our area to understand the warning signs of teen dating violence, REACH aims to create a healthier community from the bottom up.
If you are part of an interested organization in Haywood, or know someone who is, contact the REACH office at 828-456-7898, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anna Denson is an administrative assistant at REACH of Haywood.