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Helping College Students Stay Safe While Dating

As the son of a domestic violence survivor, David Marshall is hoping to chip away some of the attitudes that perpetuate violence against women at his college. The senior at City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice participates in the group Men Creating Change, consisting of a handful of students who organize domestic violence awareness events and gather to discuss traditional notions of masculinity. It took two years to get the group up and running, but now the chapter, which is part of the national organization Men Can Stop Rape, serves as a resource to prevent dating violence at the college.

Marshall and his peers start every meeting by discussing sexist or misogynistic comments they hear on campus, discussing personal experiences with violence, venting about academic or societal pressures and offering each other support.

“Because you talk to your girlfriend with respect or your boyfriend with respect, it doesn’t mean that you’re less than a man,” Marshall said after a recent meeting. “So I think this program has really been great in getting to that, or helping show awareness of that.”

Such campus groups and programming to combat dating violence are becoming more prevalent as increased awareness of dating violence forces students and administrators alike to address a problem that studies indicate affects one in five college relationships. Some schools address the issue through student orientation while others, like those in the CUNY system, have comprehensive policies on domestic violence, stalking and sexual assault.

Talking about dating violence isn’t as taboo as it was in the past, says Jean Sung, one of the survivors who works on awareness programming for Day One, a New York City prevention group. Media coverage of high-profile domestic abuse cases — including the murder of 22-year-old University of Virginia lacrosse player Yeardley Love, allegedly by her boyfriend; and the assault of pop star Rihanna by her ex-boyfriend, R&B singer Chris Brown — has put the issue squarely in the national spotlight.

Sung, who has worked on dating violence issues for about eight years, says the 24-hour news cycle, Twitter, Facebook, blogs and the proliferation of technology in general have brought about greater awareness. “People are responding to the issue more,” she says.

Tragic cases like Love’s have spurred administrators to prioritize dating violence prevention and intervention services, says Dr. Luoluo Hong, vice chancellor of student affairs at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

“In part, as the media — in particular Internet technology — has brought broader, more frequent attention to the issues of dating and domestic violence on campuses, colleges and universities have had to face growing accountability for their programs and services, or lack thereof,” says Hong.

According to studies, peer pressure plays a role in keeping an abusive relationship under wraps. Underreporting makes it difficult to keep accurate records of dating violence. However, U.S. Department of Justice data notes that young women between the ages of 16 and 24 years old experience the highest per capita rate of domestic violence.

“I didn’t disclose until like three or four years after,” says Sung of Day One, “because, especially at a young age, you’re constantly worried about what other people are thinking about you.”

Day One officials point out several factors that make dating violence particularly insidious among girls and traditionally college-age students, including: they often don’t have experience with relationships and don’t know what to put up with; they don’t know how to deal with an abusive partner; they lack financial independence; and they often have to get parental consent to be admitted into a shelter.

“One of the challenges of working with colleges and universities, especially on the issue of dating violence and domestic violence, is that very often traditional college-age students tend to fall into the cracks between adult domestic violence and teen dating violence,” says Joe Samalin, a trainer with Men Can Stop Rape who also leads John Jay’s Men Creating Change chapter.

Campus Causes

Joe Vess, Men Can Stop Rape’s director of training and technical assistance, says it used to be students pushing for more dating violence resources. Now, it’s the opposite.

“On many campuses we are really seeing the administration take the lead on this and bring the students along,” he says.

Five or 10 years ago, Samalin adds, Men Can Stop Rape would only occasionally come in contact with high-level college administrators. The frequency of such occurrences has risen in recent years. In addition, more graduate students in education who want to work in student affairs are realizing the need for training in relationship violence prevention.

The DOJ’s Office of Violence Against Women is currently funding a significant amount of Men Can Stop Rape’s prevention training work at colleges across the country.

This year, the organization will begin providing technical assistance and training at several historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health. Among the planned projects, the organizations will train staffers on prevention and intervention services, help start campus campaigns and work on curriculum development and community presentations, along with other programming.

Specifically, training sessions will take place at Benedict College, Clark Atlanta University, Florida A&M University, Morehouse College, Norfolk State University, Northwest Indian College, Northeastern State University, University of Texas-El Paso and Universidad del Turabo in Puerto Rico.

Despite the increased attention, Hong says most colleges and universities are only addressing surface issues surrounding dating violence. She wrote her dissertation on the impact of men’s organizations on violence culture and says society pressures men to think that being a “real man” means being aggressive and domineering. That mentality leads to rape and abuse, she says. According to Hong, a small group of schools are getting to the root of dating violence by working with young men to dissect and quell violent tendencies. Colorado State University, Texas State University at San Marcos and Western Washington University are just a few of those, she says.

With so many pressing issues on their plates, college administrators often push dating violence issues to the sideline, says Samalin. The omnipresence of campus security, friends, professors and staff also sends parents the message that their kids are safe, prompting parents to demand other services first. “I think colleges are also, to some extent, seen as that safe ivory tower,” adds Samalin.

Hong adds that there are many other barriers that keep administrators from taking action. “Fear of change, investment in the status quo, believing in the enduring ‘myths’ that women can avoid getting raped if they just make ‘smarter’ decisions or avoid ‘risky’ situations — these are some of the major obstacles,” she says. These are emotionally charged, politically polarizing and challenging issues to grapple with, and it takes strong leadership to stay the course.”

At Hong’s university, the University of Hawaii at Hilo, educational sessions during freshman orientation help students identify abusive behavior. A new Men Creating Change chapter called Men of Strength is a haven for young men to discuss social pressures to be aggressive. Hong says she has allocated resources, faculty and staff to ensure the group’s effectiveness, noting that students who experience dating violence often drop out of school, transfer or endure stress, depression and anxiety, interfering with their academic success. She says that is why dealing with the root of the problem, male pressure to be aggressive and violent, is so important.

A Groundbreaking Policy

Programming that addresses the culture of dating violence will work to ensure the success of campus policies such as those on CUNY campuses. In 2010, after eight years of effort, CUNY adopted a comprehensive policy on domestic violence, stalking and sexual assault that encompasses prevention and intervention services.

“CUNY is the largest urban university with multiple campuses, so it is groundbreaking for standardizing how these issues are discussed, monitored and adjudicated across campuses,” says Dr. Katie Gentile, director of John Jay’s Women’s Center and one of the people leading the effort. “It sends the message that these issues are campus issues, even though many occur off campus since our students are commuters. It recognizes that retention demands campus recognition of these issues.”

At CUNY, a universitywide task force will monitor policy implementation on each campus, and CUNY personnel are being trained by Men Can Stop Rape to prevent and intervene in domestic violence situations. About 60 security staffers, faculty, counselors and administrators already have undergone the training.

“The goal is to train a couple of trainers for each campus who will return and then train most stakeholders at their respective campuses,” says Gentile, adding that the school will then assess the effectiveness of its new policy.

John Jay’s Men Creating Change chapter worked with Gentile on getting the new policy passed and will be there to ensure its efficacy. It also will continue to provide programming and education, including a poetry slam/speak out and a dating violence conference in April. The group also plans to continue with ongoing programming in February for Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month.

“If you change people’s ideology of what it means to be a man, then hopefully that will stem out to how they change treating women on the street or in a relationship,” says Dustin Manning, a Men Creating Change member. 

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