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GREENWICH TIME by Ken Borsuk 3.Februrary.2020 — The YWCA Greenwich is pushing for more attention on violence in teen dating, with the nonprofit pointing to sobering statistics that show the extent of the problem.
“Dating abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic standing, ethnicity, religion or culture,” YWCA Greenwich President and CEO Mary Lee Kiernan said. “It really does live on every street in this community.”
One in 10 high school students report that they have been purposely hit, slapped or physically injured by a boyfriend or girlfriend, Kiernan said. And only one-third of those teens ever tell anyone about the abuse, she said.
Raising awareness will take the work of the entire community, Kiernan said.
To that end, the YWCA Greenwich held an event at Town Hall on Monday where First Selectman Fred Camillo, joined by Chief of Police James Heavey, declared that February would be Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month in town.
Camillo stressed the importance of ending the stigma around teen dating violence, saying that issue for too long has been swept under the rug.
“Let’s be aware of this (problem) every month until there is no need to observe this month,” he said.
Also in attendance were three juniors from Greenwich High School who are working in the school’s YNet Club. They partner with YWCA Greenwich in a youth-driven program focusing on educating people about teen dating violence and giving their peers a place to turn if they need help.
Jennie Olmsted, Elizabeth Casolo and Ana DeMakes, who make up the YNet executive committee, were quick to advise how adults can help. Olmsted urged parents to talk to their teens about 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 express your concerns without anger,” Olmsted said. “Concretely say what you have witnessed and what you’re concerned about and listen to your child. If you talk over them, they may shut down,” she said. “Resist the urge to solve the problem for them and do not minimize anything your child says.”
DeMakes said, “Educating others about healthy relationships is vital because young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are three times as likely to be in an abusive relationship. … It can happen to anyone.”
They also explained what teen dating violence looks like on its many levels.
“It’s when a young person uses a pattern of abusive behaviors to get and maintain power and control over a partner,” Casolo said.
“It’s not only physical. Abuse in a teen relationship can include demanding to see a person’s text messages, pressuring them to quit their after-school job and regularly throwing in degrading comments like, ‘Should you really be eating that?’” she said.
To raise awareness during February, Casolo said YNet will sell valentines with messages about healthy relationships. They will also stage an “Empty Desk Day,” when a desk will be kept empty in each classroom with an explanation about a student’s absence due to an unhealthy relationship, such as, “Sarah couldn’t come to school today because her partner kept her awake texting all night.”
Casolo said that will show how a student’s academic performance and attendance can be affected by violence in their relationship.
Dating violence can be combated through early education, Kiernan said. YWCA Greenwich works in the town’s public and independent schools as early as kindergarten, teaching about violence prevention and healthy relationships. Last year, more than 3,500 middle school and high school students participated in YWCA Greenwich presentations on the issue, Kiernan said.
According to Meredith Gold, director of domestic abuse services at YWCA Greenwich, it is “absolutely critical” to hold conversations about healthy relationship skills and to practice empathy, identifying feelings and conflict negotiation.
Getting that education at an early age, Gold said, can do enormous amounts of good.
“This is not just an issue that impacts people when they are young,” she said. “Our very first dating relationship often sets the tone and the dynamic of our future relationships as adults. When we work with adults who are currently in abusive relationships, many can look back and identify the same controlling and abusive patterns in the relationships they had when they were young.”
Heavey agreed that the education programs from the YWCA Greenwich and YNet are having a positive long-term impact. By having two student resource officers at GHS as well as liaisons with the GPD’s Special Victims Section available for every school, Heavey said the police department is there as a resource as well.
“It’s important to train and inform other adults, parents and influential community leaders, to recognize the signs of teen dating violence and to be good role models to prevent that,” Heavey said.
Last year, the YWCA Greenwich served 833 individuals through its domestic abuse services and received more than 3,900 calls at its 24/7 hotline or walk-ins seeking help.