Abuse: The Dark Side of Dating on Campus
Violence in the school and university student dating scene is all too common. Know the signs of abuse so you can respond appropriately.
“Let’s say [the victim is] from a marginalized population and her significant other has a lot of clout in that community,” Henderson says. “When she reports him, the whole community turns against her because she has brought shame on them. That can happen in high school [or college]. If you get one of the star football or basketball players in trouble, there are going to be a whole lot of people mad at you at school. I think these young girls know that as well. The pressure in high school to conform and be liked is so strong that people are cautious to break those rules.”
Training, Appropriate Policies Can Help
The keys to addressing dating violence, both in the K-12 and university environments, are providing training and policies on how to identify abuse and how it will be handled. Corcoran believes teachers, faculty, staff and campus public safety officers must be shown what unhealthy relationships look, feel and sound like.
“That way, they are going to be able to pick up on the nuances of the young people they see every day: the changes in behavior, changes in dress and falling grades,” he says. “We can do this when we are in a dialogue with these young people. If we know what is going on in their world, we’re going to be better able to understand what the exact issue is. We need to give them the opportunity to talk, and we need to do a better job of active listening.”
How adults and bystanders respond to the abuse of a student must be done with utmost care.
“We don’t tell young people what to do; we give them information,” says Escobar. “We give them guidance so they can protect their safety. We encourage them to think ahead of time how they would handle a situation so they aren’t dealing with it when they are in fight or flight mode. We are about them being empowered to make the best decisions for them. Sometimes that means breaking up, and sometimes it’s not.”
What normally doesn’t work is making statements that can be perceived by the victim as being judgmental, such as, “How could you have let it get this far?” Giving advice such as, “Why don’t you just leave him?” doesn’t work either.
“Their abuser is telling them what to do and controlling their behavior,” continues Escobar. “If you come in and try to control their behavior, even though you have their best interests in mind, to the person who is experiencing the abuse, they don’t have any choices. They can either do what their abuser tells them to do or what you tell them to do. Neither way are they getting to decide for themselves. You want to create a space so they can decide what they want to do, and tell them that ‘I want to support you whatever you decide to do. Whenever you decide to do it, I’m going to be there for you.’ In the meantime, I would give them resources to get them thinking about whether or not what they are going through is healthy.”
Choose Your Words Wisely
Henderson recommends police officers, campus administrators, teachers, counselors, health services personnel and other staff rephrase the way they ask potential victims if they have experienced violence.
“I’ve really worked at generalizing violence and giving a lot of qualifiers,” he says. “I may say, ‘Many women have told me…’ or ‘A lot of men have said…’ or ‘It’s been my experience that…’”
He believes that phrasing questions in this way lets victims know they are not alone. It is also important to not phrase questions in a way that vilifies the abuser. Here’s an example of a question Henderson might ask during a victim interview:
- Sometimes when people come in here, their injuries are the result of an argument, even if it wasn’t on purpose.
“When I throw in ‘It wasn’t on purpose,’ they think ‘OK, I don’t have to demonize him,’” Henderson says. “Think about it: If I [the victim] demonize [the abuser] and stay with him, I look really stupid to you.”
He also recommends that campus staff and police who are conducting interviews find ways to praise victims.
“Their partners have done a good job of telling them they can’t do anything right,” he says. “When you [the victim] come to see me and you are seven minutes early, I can compliment you on the fact that you got here early.”
Officers and school staff can also convey the message that using violence was 100% the offender’s choice, even if the victim had done something really bad, like steal money from their partner.