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Teen dating violence is on the rise; what high schoolers are doing about it

Two seniors at Silver Creek High School are using their senior capstone projects to make a difference and educate their peers about topics related to teenage dating violence.
teen romance
Image from Unsplash.

One in three high school students will experience dating violence throughout their high school career, according to Emily Ekart, the teenager advocate and educator at the Safe Shelter of St. Vrain Valley. This is a national statistic that she sees playing out in Longmont. 

According to Ekart, the last couple of years have brought an uptick in instances of teenage dating violence, although trends of such violence varied depending on COVID-19 mandates. 

During the stay at home order, the Safe Shelter saw an increase in digital dating violence, but less physical or sexual violence due to people’s inability to get together in person. Since the stay-at-home mandates have been lifted, “(the Safe Shelter) has really seen an increase in physical and sexual violence across the board,” Ekart said, “and we’re definitely seeing that among teenagers as well.” 

Although physical and sexual violence is on the rise, among teenage relationships, the physical and sexual violence tends to look more subtle “than our traditional idea of what a physically violent relationship looks like,” Ekart said. 

Most of what occurs among teens are threats of violence or intimidation, according to Ekart, like one when a partner punches walls, makes threatening gestures or forcibly grabs the other partner, for example. Ekart also reported seeing a lot of teenagers in relationships threaten self-harm – i.e., ‘if you break up with me I’m going to kill myself’ – “which is an incredibly powerful and manipulative tactic to keep someone in an abusive relationship,” she said. 

Finally, instances of sexual abuse among teens, although often subtle, are always marked by one partner manipulating the other into performing nonconsensual sexual acts – i.e., ‘if you love me you’ll have sex with me,’ pressure to send and recieve nude photos and threats to expose nude photos, according to Ekart. 

Some of the most common warning signs Ekart sees in abusive teenage relationships include excessive jealousy; controlling behaviors like checking a partner’s phone or social media; isolating a partner from their friends; blaming others for one’s own issues, including their partner; being afraid to tell a partner ‘no’ even to something like a FaceTime call and feeling pressure for the relationship to move quicker than one partner is comfortable with. 

According to Ekart, people can learn more about teenage dating violence and prevention skills by consulting and Teenagers experiencing dating violence in the community can receive help and support by speaking with Ekart via the Safe Shelter’s teenage text line at 720-340-8372. 

To combat teenage dating violence, Ekart focuses on prevention. She teaches prevention skills to ninth grade health classes during their sexual education units on topics such as consent, what a healthy relationship versus an unhealthy relationship looks like and how to be a healthy partner to a significant other. 

In November, Ekart received assistance during one of these presentations in a health class at Silver Creek High School, or SCHS.

Kayla Farwell and Andersyn Ibsen, seniors at SCHS are using their senior capstone projects to make a difference and educate their peers about topics related to teenage dating violence.

It was natural for Farwell to work with Safe Shelter and Ekart to teach healthy dating practices. According to Ekart, Farwell’s assistance during this presentation was invaluable. 

“There’s a difference between me going in and talking about consent and that peer-to-peer education,” Ekart said. “(The students) were a lot more receptive to (Farwell) in that situation and she can kind of say some things that an adult can’t say in the classroom, so it was incredibly helpful for her to do that and she did a very great job.”

According to Farwell, the presentations went well, she said, and most of the time, the students were engaged and participatory. Farwell’s presentation also allowed students who had experienced dating violence to speak about their own experiences.

“(Farwell) can now go into the school and be a safe space for people to disclose and / or be a resource for people to get to me,” Ekart said. “I think that’s invaluable and I wish more schools had that.” 

When deciding what she wanted to do for her senior capstone project last fall, Farwell was inspired to explore teenage dating violence by drawing upon her interests in criminology — specifically victim studies — and psychology, she said. 

“I wanted to do more to spread awareness about sexual assault and domestic violence in the community,” Farwell said, “because it’s a really stigmatized topic and I know that a lot of girls in high school have experience with those types of incidents.”

Ibsen also decided to explore how to make her peers aware of teen dating violence in her capstone project. She reached out to the Fire + Root Collective in Denver and began holding classes for her female peers to learn self defense. 

“My capstone project is all about teaching the girls at the school self defense and empowerment tools before we go off to college,” Ibsen said. “I think there’s such a big gap between high school life and real life and sometimes we’re not prepared to take that next step.”

Last semester, Ibsen held two free self defense classes in the SCHS gymnasium which were attended by approximately 20 other students, she said. Going forward, she hopes to hold three more classes before the end of the school year. 

“I try to be careful when I’m advertising the classes and when I’m at the classes to not be like ‘if a man attacks you’ or anything like that,” Ibsen said. “It’s more about getting familiar with your body and feeling safe in your environment and gaining confidence in yourself so that you feel like you could safely get out of a situation if it arose.

For Ibsen, the success of the self defense classes is determined by how many girls attend and how much fun they have, both of which she’s been pleased by, she said. “(The classes) are just so much fun and I love them so much.” 

Ekart is impressed by the efforts of students at SCHS to reduce the secrecy on the topic of teen dating violence. 

“(Their work) is more valuable than what I do,” Ekart explained. “It’s more efficient if (Farwell) or other students talk to each other about taboo issues like sexual assault and teen dating violence than me coming in and doing it.”

“I think the students who are doing this are really leading the way to creating a safe space for the people experiencing dating violence in high schools,” Ekart added.