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Unique program teaches Bergen teens about domestic violence

Photo Credit: FOR VIDEO
Photo Credit: FOR VIDEO

ONLY ON CLIFFVIEW PILOT: Teens at several Bergen County middle and high schools this month are participating in a unique series of unprecedented workshops on dating abuse and domestic violence, staged by the county Department of Human Services.

It’s become more important than ever to “engage, educate and empower” teens at a young age, when they are just beginning to get into romantic relationships, organizers say.

Because of “sexting” and online chat, “digital abuse has really exploded,” according to the department’s Alternatives to Domestic Violence Division. “One out of every four teenaged girls suffers some form of dating abuse in her teen years.”

And it isn’t just manhandling, choking and beating: There’s emotional abuse, including threats, insults, intimidation, and stalking, as well as forcing a partner into unwanted sex.

It all stems from how teens view themselves. Girls may want independence from their parents, or have skewed views of love – particularly if they’ve been in an abusive household. They could feel pressured into sexual relationships before they’re ready.

Boys could suffer the same influences. They may feel they need to control their girlfriends, force intimacy or become physically abusive to prove their masculinity.

Girls might blame themselves, consider their boyfriends’ behavior as love or think it’s simply the norm. They could be afraid to seek help – or even clarity. Neither may realize it’s wrong.

Recent session at Leonia HS (COURTESY NY1) CLICK PHOTO FOR VIDEO

That’s where the roving instructors come in. There’s no cost to the school, participation is voluntary, and the lessons from the “Prevention Through Education” program are extremely valuable. October is a good time for it, considering that it’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

“Educating our teens about healthy relationships is a proactive approach to dealing with this problem,” County Executive Kathleen Donovan said.

Just three years ago, police nationwide filed 552,000 non-fatal violence reports (rape/sexual assault, robbery, or aggravated or simple assault) involving females aged 12 or older by an intimate partner (a current or former spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend), according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Curiously, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the overall occurrence of dating violence is more frequent among black (13.9 percent) and Hispanic (9.3 percent) teens, as opposed to their white peers (7 percent). Addressing that, the Bergen counselors speak Spanish.

The Bergen counselors teach students to identify abusive behaviors and to “recognize their personal rights in a relationship.” The youngsters discover that violence is a learned behavior that can be changed and are given resources where they can instantly get help.

What makes the instruction even more intriguing to the youngsters are the little-known aspects that are revealed – for instance, that 40 percent of ALL rape victims nationwide are 14 to 17 years old. Nearly 70 percent of the sexual assaults are committed by a boyfriend, friend or acquaintance – usually in someone’s house, not in a desolate park or back alley.

The counselors alert the youngsters to the cycles of violence that predict abuse, beginning with the boyfriend or girlfriend frequently picking fights, sometimes over small stuff, to exercise control. Jealousy often follows, as well as what’s falsely presented as a “protective” insistence on not hanging with others. Insults are common, as are lies.

Then, one day, it’s a smack, a kick, a push – or forced sex. Things might get thrown or broken.

An apology follows, with blame placed on outside factors, such as stress or drugs or parents. Often it’s placed on the abused partner. With the apology usually comes a gift, or a date – until the next eruption, which will be more violent than the first. And so on….

The counselors let girls know that they have rights – to refuse to do something, to have their own opinions, to set limits, and to have their desires respected.

They urge boys to respect their girlfriends’ limits, communicate clearly and honesty, seek help if they’re feeling violent, and set high standards of behavior for themselves.

The instructors also recognize that the abuser sometimes can be the girl, and that same-sex couples are equally prone to domestic violence.

The specialists so far have been to Northern Valley Regional High School in Demarest, as well as to Leonia High School. They are scheduled to be at New Milford High School on Oct. 18-19; at Bergen Tech in Paramus Oct. 20; Bogota High School on Oct. 25 and back at Leonia High School on Oct. 27.

They are also prepared to go to any school that requests them.

The outreach doesn’t end there: Services of the Bergen County Alternatives to Domestic Violence Division include a 24-hour hotline, crisis intervention, counseling, legal advocacy/assistance and referrals. The number: 201-336-7575

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