By Amy Thomson
Due to the risk involved, many domestic violence organizations, medical institutions, and legal services historically focused on assisting victims in leaving their abusers and addressing safety concerns once victims have escaped the abuse. This focus saves the lives of those in immediate danger, but it only addresses one part of the problem. Preventative measures also need to be taken to help abuse stop before it starts.
Why are preventative programs necessary?
Often, particularly in families where domestic violence is transgenerational, children are indoctrinated from birth into a dynamic that shows by example that violence is normal – even acceptable. Children living in homes where intimate partner violence occurs may not have any healthy relationships modeled for them, thereby increasing risks of being abused – or becoming the abuser – in their intimate relationships later in life.
Healthy relationship and safety education starting at an early age can help them understand that violence and other forms of abuse are not healthy and can provide people and organizations they can ask for help if they experience abuse. Providing information appropriate for each age group builds a foundation of knowledge that can decrease their risk of being abused.
Elementary School Programs
Safety programs for young children historically centered on “stranger danger.” However, children are statistically more likely to be physically or sexually abused by someone they know. At this age, not only is it essential to give them accurate information about body safety and abuse, it needs to be done in a way that is neither overwhelming nor frightening.
Practical ways to educate children of this age group can include using illustrated stories or animation to describe the difference between good and bad touch, approaches abusers try to keep them silent, and what they can do if someone violates them. These programs also include ways children can tell who safe adults are while assuring them that the abuse is not their fault. The school should have staff trained in handling trauma in children who are also versed in play therapy and other ways to help children express emotions and events they might not be able to describe verbally.
At this age, teachers and staff will need to be watchful for changes in behavior that indicate something might be wrong. Non-verbal signals of abuse in both male and female students aged 6 – 17 can be accessed here.
Middle and High School Programs
As young adults, dating opens middle and high school students up to risks of sexual assault and teen dating violence. Programs educating teens on how to develop and maintain healthy relationships should expand to include discussions on boundaries, consent, sexual harassment, and dating violence. Information is most often presented in the form of assemblies, but there are other ways to engage students in the discussion about abuse and sexual assault.
Healthy relationships curriculum can be added to health class by separating the students into smaller groups and having them discuss various scenarios, answering questions, and asking if statements indicate healthy or unhealthy dynamics. Other options include spoken word, music, plays, writing, or art events where students produce work focusing on abuse and relationships.
Collegiate Level Programs
Domestic violence and sexual assault education programs can easily fit into women’s studies or health majors. However, a large part of the student body that could benefit from outreach would not have access to the information. Students majoring in gender studies, criminal justice, law, or health studies can take the lead and organize on-campus events during awareness months. Student organizations or the colleges themselves can partner with community organizations to provide outreach education on domestic violence and sexual assault to others in their area.
Colleges are ideal for hosting seminars or conferences featuring speakers who are either survivors themselves or who work in the domestic and sexual violence fields. Campuses can hold screenings of domestic violence documentaries and movies followed by discussion panels.
Other ways schools can engage their students in discussing domestic and sexual violence include art and talent shows, supply drives for local shelters, fundraising walks/runs, and fashion shows. Administrators can also encourage students to volunteer at local organizations or shelters.
Organizations to Engage for Speaker Programs or Additional Information:
Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence – Guide to Healthy Relationships focuses on adolescents and young adults most at risk for being abused – or becoming an abuser. Presentations are led by advocates and volunteers who are survivors of domestic violence and focus on recognizing signs of abuse and how to choose healthy relationships. Speakers can be requested here.
Loveisrespect – focuses on consent, setting boundaries, conflict resolution, and communication in adolescent relationships. In addition to the wealth of information on their site, there are also educator toolkits available for download.
Haven – (Oakland County, MI) – focuses on a range of preventative education programs starting with elementary age children through college students. Learn more about their programs or request speaker here.
RAINN – focuses on eradicating sexual violence and helping victims and their loved ones recover from abuse and assault. In addition to a wide range of information on their website, professional trainers and speakers information can be accessed here.