Nearly half of girls report that a friend or peer has been pressured into have oral sex or intercourse, underscoring the growing threat of teen sexual violence in many communities the Payson school board was told by Betty McEntire, training coordinator with the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
In response, the Payson Unified School District on July 11 announced plans to implement several violence prevention programs for middle and high schools students to teach teens about healthy relationships and appropriate boundaries.
Superintendent Casey O’Brien said the district would train administrators and teachers and also involve student peer counselors and parents.
In the last month, the Roundup has run a series of articles dealing with teen sexual violence that uncovered at least a dozen police cases in recent years that involved teenaged girls who were raped, assaulted or pushed too far sexually.
Local counselors say they frequently deal with teens coping with a jumble of emotions after such an event, including shame, embarrassment and self-hate. Without help, victims often become promiscuous, drop out of school and develop depression. Many carry problems into their adult relationships.
Part three of the series will examine ways to prevent sexual violence in schools and elsewhere. Part four will examine the debate about whether the Gila County Attorney’s Office should prosecute more cases involving sexual violence.
Gerry Bailey, executive director of Time Out Inc., said women who seek shelter there often report that their cycles of abuse started early in their life and progressed into domestic violence as adults.
For the past few years, Time Out staff has worked with students at Payson Center for Success on healthy relationships. The students often talk about the controlling behaviors and psychological abuse they have experienced.
Bailey said the district must get involved with prevention efforts before dating violence becomes a major problem.
“Educating young people about what constitutes either a healthy or an abusive relationship is essential,” she said.
While most teens might not understand the basics of healthy relationships, they still ask for help, said McEntire.
“Overwhelming numbers of students are asking for more healthy relationships in conjunction with dating relationships because no one is giving them a manual, unfortunately, about how to have a healthy relationship,” she said.
Most teens don’t want to learn about relationships from their parents, they want to hear it from their peers.
“Now people are asking about advice for healthy relationships and they want to help each other. One thing we know about dating violence is that they learn it from their peers.
“When you ask young people where they get their relationship advice: do you learn it from your parents, do you learn it from your church, they say, ‘No, I look to my friends.’ They are looking to their fellow 16-year-old next to them and trying to emulate that relationship.”
Emulating a friend’s relationship can have disastrous results, especially if that friend is stuck in an abusive relationship.
Nearly one in four girls who have been in a relationship reported going further sexually than they wanted as a result of pressure, according to a national survey by Teenage Research Unlimited.
In Payson, sexual violence and substance abuse often go hand in hand.
But teens can experience a wide range of abusive behaviors beyond sexual coercion, including insults, threats, intimidation and excessive jealousy.
Students tell counselors that abuse often occurs through the computer or cell phone, including excessive calling, cyber stalking and harassment both on and off school grounds.
In fact, sexual violence and harassment has no preferred location. About half the incidents occur at school, the rest off campus, McEntire said.
For instance, in September of 2009, a male student assaulted a girl in a dugout at Payson High School.
The teen eventually pleaded guilty to attempted kidnapping and sexual assault. He’s now listed as a sex offender — and his victim has had to undergo extensive therapy to get over the event.
Harassment from the community forced the girl to drop out of school for a year and depression led her to consider suicide.
As she struggles to cope, she says she sometimes wonders whether she should have reported the assault at all.
That helps explain why most girls never officially report such cases of forced sex, said Payson Police Chief Don Engler.
The same generally holds true for boys who suffer either physical or sexual assaults.
Following an assault, more than half of boys say they were not hurt at all or simply laugh off the violence, reported McEntire. For girls, the most common reaction to abuse is to cry, she said.
While teens may not report the violence, many carry the shame and guilt for years, which spawns a host of other problems.
“Victims have poorer health outcomes than their non-abused peers and experience higher rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections,” said Lucia Howard, co-chair at the Avon Program for Women and Justice at the O’Connor House.
In addition, dating violence victims also have an increased risk of substance abuse, weight issues, risky sexual behavior and suicidal thoughts.
“The abuse can impact school work because they want to avoid seeing their partner,” McEntire said.
What can be done?
“Prevention, prevention, prevention,” McEntire said.
“I am specifically not saying intervention” because only one in 10 teens affected by abuse seeks help.
The Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence (AZCADV) presented three curriculum options for the PUSD.
O’Brien said the district is ordering all of the recommended materials for both the high school and middle school.
“The schools plan to coordinate a parent/teen information night and we are looking at involving our student peer counselors in training and support for students,” he said.
“It is important teachers and staff can recognize any type of harassment or abuse, whether that is related to dating or otherwise and know the appropriate steps to take.”
While O’Brien said teaching students about healthy relationships falls primarily on the shoulders of parents, the school board recognizes the seriousness of the issue.
“Our district and schools will work with organizations like AZCADV to provide students and parents with information and also provide points of contact where students can go, should they find themselves in an abusive relationship,” he said.
School board member Kim Pound said he doesn’t want to see principals take on the role of police officers, who are placed in schools to enforce laws, such as harassment and sexual assault.
“If there is abuse taking place, if there is violence taking place, it needs to be turned over to law enforcement and they need to do the investigation,” he said.
Pound said it is up to the parents to set good relationship standards.
McEntire said it takes a whole community to address serious issues like dating and sexual violence.
“It is not just the schools taking this on, it is the community, and your parents are a part of that community because you cannot do this alone as a school board, you can’t, it is impossible,” she said.
“It is not about creating an overburden to schools, but creating a community response to an epidemic.”
One of the programs being implemented is SafePlace’s Expect Respect. The program engages the entire school community in preventing teen dating violence and promoting healthy relationships.
Two other programs work along the same line.
Last year, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 1308, which requires school boards to consider including teen dating violence education in the curriculum.
While O’Brien said the district’s main job remains academics, “we certainly need to be aware of the realities that face our children today and to be able to assist in abuse prevention, guidance and when necessary, intervention.”
Policies like this show students that perpetrators will be held accountable, victims will be supported and that dating abuse is wrong, Howard said.