SPRING HILL — February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention month. And education is vital to helping youngsters navigate the often frightening and chaotic world of teen dating.
Teens are experiencing sexual violence at alarming rates.
• Forty-four percent of reported sexual assaults occur to youth under age 18, with ages 16 to 19 at the highest risk.
• Four out of five sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim.
• One in three teens has experienced dating violence.
Dawn Center is proactive in providing education to local teens through their awareness and prevention outreach.
April Johnson, Dawn Center’s community engagement coordinator, has spent the last three years working her way into the public school system.
“Individually it would be going into the school and talking to them about working a program,” Johnson explained. But the progress was slow. “It was hard to get into more than one or two schools a year.”
So, they revamped the focus and are now working on a Hernando County program that each school can adopt individually. “We go in and do a presentation, the staff participates and learns that presentation so they can duplicate it. They use the tools that are already there.”
The schools can then determine their own specific needs and how much time they want to put into their program. “We encourage them to reach the students eight times. Evidence based practice is to reach them eight times and they’ll start to get it. And then the kids start to take over the program somewhat.”
That initiative began at the start of summer. “To date, we are in 14 schools in some way.”
Prevention topics incorporated into the program include:
• Boundary setting.
• Characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships.
• Understanding consent.
• Gender bias.
• Challenging social norms.
• Trusting instincts.
• Technology abuse.
Also discussed is the Dating Bill of Rights. It declares, “I have the right to: trust myself and my instincts; be respected as a person; change my mind; express my feelings; refuse a date; and not be physically, emotionally, or sexually abused.”
It has been proven that education helps to promote a safe campus environment, leadership skills, bystander intervention, higher graduation and success rates, compliance of districts TDV policies, and a healthier learning environment, according to Dawn Center data.
But education isn’t just for teens. “It’s also for the little kids. It’s going into the elementary schools,” Johnson continued. Dawn Center is working with the Early Learning Coalition to develop age-appropriate programs for daycares.
“We have curriculum that is evidence-based for each age level that we can use. And they can be taught to any layperson who is interested in working with kids,” she said. “Anywhere youth are touched is where the focus of our prevention has been.”
But education in schools can only go so far. Johnson encouraged parents to help guide their children’s awareness to prevent them from becoming a victim or from victimizing another.
Dawn Center assists in that effort as well. They work with the Parent Academy to create a few events a year.
“We show a movie called the 'Mask You Live In.' It’s basically a documentary about what we’re doing wrong with our boys. How are we teaching them aggressive behaviors? How are we teaching them those fronts that they put out, those masks? Instead of teaching them the values that really matter. Compassion for other people. Understanding for other people. Controlling their instincts, not always having to follow the crowd,” Johnson explained.
They also show a film directed at girls that addresses the over sexualization of females in society. “How society really values that and how it’s really hurting the violence against women movement.”
After the movies are shown, a round table discussion delves into what was learned and what they can take home to continue the dialog with their children. “Getting parents involved is so important,” Johnson stressed. “It’s just a matter of reaching them.”
Dawn Center is involved in both outreach and shelter work for children and teens on topics of violence, including violence experienced within their families and among their peers.
“Unfortunately, violence happens. And kids are the ones who often get left out of the healing process.”
But the message delivered is clear. “Nobody should be violent to anybody. That’s just not OK.”
Dawn Center provides a 24-hour hotline at 352-686-8430 for anyone experiencing abuse, dating violence or sexual violence.