By Richard Kaufman
Earlier this week inside Town Hall, the community gathered to declare February as Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month.
Throughout February, the YWCA of Greenwich, which is the only designated provider of domestic abuse services in the community, and YNet, a teen dating violence awareness club at Greenwich High School, will hold several events and programs to highlight the issue.
“Raising awareness about dating abuse takes the entire community,” said YWCA of Greenwich President and CEO, Mary Lee Kiernan. “Dating abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic standing, ethnicity, religion or culture. It really does live on every street in this community.”
According to Kiernan, one in 10 high school students report that they’ve been purposely hit, slapped, or physically injured by a boyfriend or girlfriend. Only about 33 percent of those teens have ever told anyone about the abuse.
Overall last year, said Kiernan, the YWCA of Greenwich served 833 individuals through its Domestic Abuse Services. They also received over 3,900 calls to their 24/7 hotline, and walk-ins.
“It’s incumbent upon all of us to raise awareness about the signs of abuse and educate young people about the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships,” Kiernan added.
First Selectman Fred Camillo issued a proclamation to signify the beginning of the month.
Camillo remarked that the issue has been “pushed under the rug” in year’s past because people didn’t want to come forward, but that’s beginning to change.
“Let’s be aware of [teen dating violence] every month, until there’s no need for this month,” he said.
Three GHS juniors and members of the YNet Executive Committee — Elizabeth Casolo, Ana DeMakes and Jennie Olmsted — were also in attendance and discussed what teen dating violence looks like, and what the club is doing this month to raise awareness.
YNet, short for Youth Network, has been around since 1996, and it focuses on leadership, peer education and teen dating violence prevention education.
“Teen dating violence is when a young person uses a pattern of abusive behaviors to get and maintain power and control over a dating partner,” said Casolo. “It’s not only physical. Abuse in a teen relationship can include demanding to see your partner’s text messages, pressuring them to quit their after school job, or regularly throwing in a degrading comment like, ‘should you really be eating that?'”
DeMakes said that educating others about healthy relationships is vital.
“Young people between the ages of 16-24 are three times as likely to be in an abusive relationship. We want our peers to know that teen dating violence happens even in Greenwich, because it can happen to anyone,” she remarked.
Olmsted said she wanted those in attendance to make a call to action.
“Parents, teachers, coaches and other caring adults… talk to your teens. Stay in tune with who they’re hanging out with and where they’re spending their time. If you see or suspect that a teen in your life is in an unhealthy relationship or an abusive relationship, be sure to address your concerns without anger,” Olmsted said. “Concretely say what you’ve witnessed and what you’re concerned about. Listen to your child. If you talk over them, they may shut down. Resist the urge to solve the problem for them. Do not minimize anything your child says.”
This month, YNet will sell valentines with messages about healthy relationships, such as “Be Mine. Just kidding, be your own autonomous person” as a way to talk about healthy relationships with peers. The club is also organizing “Empty Desk Day”, in which a desk in each classroom will remain empty with an explanation as to why that student is absent because of an abusive relationship.
“This is to show how students’ attendance and academics may potentially be impacted by violence in their relationship,” Casolo said.
YNet is also going to hold a program in which child clients of the YWCA of Greenwich Domestic Abuse Services will be mentored by YNet members.
Meredith Gold, Director of Domestic Abuse Services at the YWCA of Greenwich, said educating young people about healthy relationships is very important.
“Our very first dating relationship often sets the tone and dynamic of our future relationships as adults. It’s absolutely critical we have these conversations as early as possible about relationships,” she said.
The YWCA teaches violence prevention and healthy relationship skills to students as young as Kindergarten, at Greenwich public and independent schools. Last year alone, more than 3,500 middle school and high school students participated in presentations by the YWCA, according to Kiernan.
The program teaches pro-social behavior and specific healthy relationship skills where students can practice empathy, feelings, identification and conflict negotiation.
Greenwich Police Chief James Heavey spoke briefly, too, and said it’s important to continue to use these evidence based programs from the YWCA and participation from YNet. He also commented that having two school resource officers at GHS, and liaisons with the Department’s special victims section to every single public and private school in town has been a success.
“We have to continue to train and inform other adults, parents and influential adult leaders in the community, to recognize the signs of teen dating violence and to be good role models to prevent that,” Heavey said.
For more information on this month’s events, go to ywcagreenwich.org