Futures Without Violence (FUTURES) hosted a briefing on prevention services surrounding teen dating violence and sexual assault on Friday, February 28. Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) and Congresswomen Debbie Dingell (D-MI), Gwen Moore (D-WI), and Ann Kluster (D-NH) have a special interest in domestic violence prevention and were cited as honorary hosts of the event. Researchers from across the country spoke on their unique research and data surrounding the effectiveness of domestic violence programs. However, the most eye-opening speech was the personal testimony of Rachel Epstein, a high school student, youth advocate, and sexual assault survivor.

To gain perspective, 1 in 3 high school students experience physical or sexual violence from someone they are dating. Additionally, teen dating violence and sexual assault often guide the way to health disparities, including addiction, and eating disorders, and mental health occurrences. Teens who have experienced dating violence are more than twice as likely to consider suicide compared to their peers. What is disappointing, however, is the lack of knowledge and proper training around the issue.

FUTURES notes that most school principals have never received training on dating violence, nor do many schools follow guidelines on how to respond to such incidents. To highlight the lack of education among school leaders, Rachel shared the nature of victim-blaming, doubt, and harassment she experienced at the hands of her principal, school counselor, and peers that began in the seventh grade after coming forward about her sexual assault perpetuated by her boyfriend. A theme among the speakers centered on opening up the dialogue of dating violence to elementary and middle school-aged children rather than waiting until high school, when many students have already experienced the trauma.

Karma Cottman, Executive Director of the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence, discussed the importance of the language used when teaching young people about healthy relationships and dating violence, such as the use of the word “sex” and explaining what is and is not appropriate in relationships. Dr. Elizabeth Miller, Professor of Pediatrics and Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, discussed her involvement in the development of the Coaching Boys into Men program which offers athletic coaches ways to teach their male athletes appropriate views of masculinity and femininity and ways to stop violence against women. Additionally, Dr. Sarah Degue, Senior Scientist in the Division of Violence Prevention at the CDC discussed six efforts to prevent domestic violence: teaching safe and healthy relationship skills, creating protective environments, engaging influential adults and peers, strengthening economic supports for families, disrupting the developmental pathways toward partner violence, and supporting survivors to increase safety and lessen harms. To offer a different perspective, Dr. Melissa Kottke, OBGYN, and Associate Professor at Emory University discussed other areas of dating violence such as reproductive coercion, which are behaviors to control their partner’s reproductive health and autonomy.

Lastly, policy initializes surrounding domestic, and teen dating violence were discussed by Kiersten Stewart, Director of Public Policy at FUTURES. Such initiatives include H. Res. 851, “Expressing support for designation of February as “National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month,” and HR 5041, Family Violence Prevention and Services Improvement Act of 2019, which adds language to support culturally specific services. Stewart ended by imploring individuals to advocate for services by encouraging their Senators to pass the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019.