Expect Respect: Taking an Ecological Approach to Prevention

Barri Rosenbluth LCSW, School-based Services Director, SafePlace, Austin

SafePlace's Expect Respect Program engages all members of the school community in preventing dating violence and promoting healthy relationships. We offer a menu of services to participating schools including 1) support groups for youth at risk for dating violence due to previous violence or abuse, 2) youth leadership training, and 3) a school-wide prevention campaign including staff and parent training and classroom lessons. We call this an ecological approach because it seeks to change not only individual attitudes and behaviors but also the environment in which youth live, learn and have relationships.

When I began my position at SafePlace in 1989 the term "teen dating violence" was new, but the problem was as real and as serious as it is today. My early experiences included visiting a 16 year old girl in the hospital who had a bullet lodged in her neck, doing a safety plan with a 6th grader who had a scar from the top of her head to the bottom of her spine and meeting with the parents of a girl who was being stalked by an ex-boyfriend. Each of these girls was living with the pain and fear that we now understand to be a familiar aspect of teen dating violence. According to researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, nearly 1 in 5 high school girls experiences physical or sexual abuse from a dating partner (JAMA, 2001).

In collaboration with a local high school, two SafePlace counselors began offering a support group on campus for girls in abusive relationships. Soon there were many referrals and requests for groups from additional schools. The Travis County Crime Victims' Compensation Fund provided the first grant to expand support groups to five schools. In addition we partnered with the Austin Travis County Health Department to develop a curriculum and trained volunteers to provide classroom presentations to thousands of students. When a student asked for help or an incident occurred on campus, we were able to follow up with counseling and support groups.

Seventeen years later, we continue to provide school-based counseling and support groups in 18 schools serving approximately 500 students per year. Participants include youth who have experienced domestic violence or sexual abuse or who have already been involved in abusive dating relationships. Boys and girls meet in separate groups with a same-sex facilitator. The facilitator uses the program's 24-session Expect Respect support group curriculum to lead group sessions. Students in groups learn about healthy relationships by practicing new skills in an emotionally safe and supportive group environment. This intervention addresses their unique needs and aims to reduce their risk of becoming victims and perpetrators in future dating relationships.

In recent years we developed SafeTeens, an 8-session leadership training course designed to mobilize youth as role models and activists on their campus. The SafeTeens curriculum addresses dating violence, sexual harassment, sexual assault, bullying, and how to become leaders in prevention. SafeTeens is offered through health, leadership, drama, or PAL classes and in community settings and includes a service learning component. Youth receive community service hours for creating an awareness campaign or other project on their campus to promote healthy relationships. A similar training called Heroes is offered in elementary schools. Youth are in a unique position to influence the social norms on campus by creating meaningful and culturally relevant messages to educate their peers. Their projects have included posters, public service announcements and presentations to youth and adults.

In 2003 Expect Respect was selected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as one of four programs nationally to receive evaluation assistance. The goal of this project, called an empowerment evaluation, was to identify effective sexual violence prevention strategies and to build capacity in community agencies. As a result we are closer to understanding what works and how to measure it. Our findings indicate that support groups are an effective means to teach relationship skills and to change attitudes and behaviors among at-risk students. We also learned that an ecological approach is necessary to impact changes at multiple levels, including how students treat one another on campus, how adults respond to incidents and model appropriate behavior, and how parents talk with their children about dating relationships.

We recently began providing training for teachers, seminars for parents, and teacher-led classroom lessons using Choose Respect, an initiative developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Choose Respect contains educational videos (student and parent versions), posters, public service announcements and other materials targeting youth and the adults in their lives with messages about healthy dating relationships. The Choose Respect materials are attractive, research-based and available for downloading free of charge at www.chooserespect.org.

In 2007 Governor Perry signed into law HB 121 requiring all Texas school districts to address teen dating violence. Texas is a leader, joining only several other states in the nation in this important step. I encourage advocates and other concerned people to take this opportunity to reach out to local school districts, collaborating with them to establish policies, staff training, opportunities for parent involvement, curricula and, perhaps most urgently needed, access to support services for youth already in abusive relationships. Please contact me at brosenbluth@austin-safeplace.org if I can be of any assistance and check our website www.austin-safeplace.org for information about our new program manual, Expect Respect: A School-based Program for Preventing Teen Dating Violence and Promoting Safe and Healthy Relationships, coming soon.