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Regional groups work to stop youth inflicted abuse

  • 6 min to read

An angry boyfriend demands access to his girlfriend’s social media accounts and cell phone so he can see who has called or texted. An ex-sweetheart threatens to post compromising photos on Facebook after a breakup. The normally affectionate companion seethes with anger so intense he breaks or throws things. An online romance increasingly includes requests for revealing photos and information, requests that begin to feel more like coercion.

Disturbing as these scenarios may already be a lot to consider. They all are true to life and they come with an alarming twist: All involve teenagers.

The problem

Teenage dating and teen romance have been the purview of pop-culture mythmaking since the 1950s, when rock ‘n’ roll became one of the first post-World War II industries directed at the age group.

But a side of teen romantic life that is rarely examined — but increasingly apparent to those adults who spend the most time with teens — is the abuse and violence that sometimes come with romance.

While society has made inroads over the past few decades in building awareness of and confronting and intervening in domestic violence, domestic violence of the teenage kind is not as common fodder.

Violence amongst teens at the romantic level is a problem being tackled by those who deal with teenagers the most often in the region.

How much of a problem is teen dating violence in Wisconsin? The state’s Department of Health Services (DHS) answers the question with these statistics, taken from its 2013 Wisconsin Youth Behavior Survey:

  • 10 percent of youth reported “sexual dating violence” in the 12 months prior to the survey (4 percent of boys, 16 percent of girls)
  • 9 percent of youth reported “physical dating violence” in the 12 months prior to the survey (7 percent of boys, 10 percent of girls)
  • 23 percent of youth reported being bullied at school in the 12 months prior to the survey(20 percent of boys, 26 percent of girls)
  • 18 percent of youth reported being bullied electronically in the 12 months prior to the survey(11 percent of boys, 25 percent of girls)

“In addition, the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey from 2015 reveals that 9.6 percent of all students responding who had dated or gone out with someone in the year prior to the survey had been physically hurt on purpose by someone they were dating,” said Jennifer Miller, a communications specialist with the DHS, via email. “The survey shows that the prevalence of physical dating violence was higher among gay, lesbian, or bisexual students.”

Just like all of the other myriad hazards of a young person’s teenage years, dating violence, while disturbing and perhaps not as widely examined in society as domestic violence among adults, is not new — even if the digital and online communications tools that sometimes deliver it are.

So confirm the teachers, school administrators, youth advocates and violence prevention and protection professionals who work every day with teenagers across Wisconsin’s south-central region.

“It’s always gone on,” said Karen DeSanto, executive director of Boys and Girls Clubs of West-Central Wisconsin, which serves youngsters including teenagers across the region with sites in Baraboo, Tomah and, soon, Reedsburg. “We have some (dating violence) with our teens, and it is on the rise.”

Modern problems

Ask a school administrator from Portage, a school psychologist from Mauston or a community health care professional from Reedsburg whether they’ve encountered the issue of teen dating violence, and their answers are emphatic, identical and unequivocal: Yes.

“Certainly we are aware (of it), and when we hear of it we act upon it through our counselors and even our police liaison,” said Portage High School Principal Robin Kvalo. “Do my counselors, do we as administrators, do our teachers deal with this? We do.”

In addition to the violence of physical and sexual abuse that can occur within the teenage realm, an increasingly popular and potent vehicle for and amplifier of abuse between teens are the digital tools that have come to populate every aspect of modern society.

“Social media, good and bad, has brought it to the forefront,” Kvalo said. “You add the social media to that, it often becomes part of why it escalates. It can escalate some of the issues that they have.”

Cell phones and tablets can deliver abusive communications directly, instantly and repeatedly, with consequences that can go far beyond what their teen users can imagine.

“Sexual violence and dating violence, we assume it’s physical, but the emotional, coercive stuff” is considered a form of violence as well, according to Nola Pastor, prevention project coordinator for Hope House.

“Posting hurtful things or demanding access to someone’s social media accounts or looking through their phone, threatening to break up with them, share private information and spread rumors” are examples of abuse delivered digitally, said Pastor.

“Sexual pressure is really big also,” she said, and that pressure includes requesting from another digital photographs of an intimate nature.

Finding help

Pastor served as a facilitator for two of several informational sessions aimed at helping and informing teens from across the region at the recent “Teen Summit” organized by Reedsburg Area Medical Center, Sauk Prairie Healthcare, and SSMHealth St. Clare Hospital in partnership with the Sauk County Health Department, the Boys and Girls Clubs and Hope House at Baraboo High School.

The theme of the summit, which drew more than 100 teenagers from across the region, was ‘Building a Better U.” The day was dedicated to engaging the region’s teens in a variety of challenges they may face.

The event concluded with an hour-long appearance by Wisconsin Badgers basketball standout and positive-thinking proponent Nigel Hayes.

During the Badger senior’s informal, hour-plus visit with the gathered youngsters — a visit that was more interaction than speech — several of the day’s teen participants joined Hayes at center court to talk about the topics they explored hours earlier. A couple of the teens even talked about experiences with cyber-borne abuse from and with fellow teens.

Prior to his appearance, Hayes shared his perspective on teen dating violence, as the brother of two sisters.

“I know how I would want someone to treat my two sisters, and how I’d want my stepfather to treat my mother,” he told Capital Newspapers. “When I’m interacting with a woman, I try to keep that in mind, and I try to treat her with the utmost respect.”

Treating everyone with the utmost respect was one of the underlying themes of the Summit, and Hayes’ well-known, positive approach to life made him an obvious choice to be the day’s concluding speaker.

“That’s how my mother raised me, that’s how I was brought up and it’s just a good way to be,” he said. “Put good out to the world, you get good back. Speak, do and live positive — the world seems to work a lot better that way.”

Hayes’ respect for the youngsters with whom he interacted in the Portage High gym during his appearance clearly put them at ease, reflecting his association and work with youngsters at Boys and Girls Clubs since his sophomore year in Madison.

Like his fellow youth advocates and educational and violence prevention professionals across the region, Hayes also understands the importance of breaking the family cycle of violence that can spill into teen dating .

“It’s a cycle, they come from a home where they’ve seen it before,” he said. “Kids repeat what they’ve seen and what they’ve been around — it’s just a matter of trying to correct that so they don’t continue the cycle.”

Kvalo, an educator for more than four decades who was named Secondary Principal of the Year in Wisconsin for the 2015-16 school year, agreed with her basketball-playing counterpart.

“I don’t think teen abuse and boyfriend-girlfriend violence in dating are anything different from an abusive situation in the adult world,” she said. “We believe that if we can change behaviors at this young age they won’t get into those relationships. That goes into everything from bullying to character education.”

Awareness

More quietly, gradually and just as effectively, Hope House of Central Wisconsin and its community outreach professionals built region-wide awareness of teen dating violence during an effort going back 10 years.

Hope House, the region’s foremost shelter for victims of domestic and sexual violence, dedicates a page on its website to the issue of teen dating violence (http://www.hopehousescw.org/teen-dating-violence.html), and the organization is equipped to accommodate teens seeking help and even shelter, according to Hope House Community Education Program Manager Jess Kaehny.

The organization made more than 350 presentations regarding teen dating violence in 2016 alone across the region, Kaehny said, and has visited at every middle and high school Adams, Columbia, Juneau, Marquette and Sauk counties one or more times to provide information and prevention help to students.

The shelter was contacted or visited by teens seeking help for dating violence 55 times in 2016, Kaehny said, the most such contacts ever in a single year for the shelter. While that number indicates the prevalence of the issue, it also indicates increasing awareness and positive action by those affected, she said.

“I think it’s an issue people really never talked about or paid attention to,” Kaehny said. “We’re becoming more and more aware that it’s been happening.”

“I get so many teens in classrooms asking about this stuff and saying they’ve been through it,” Pastor said. “It’s prevalent, and it’s important to get people talking about it. That’s the No. 1 way to solve it, and with open dialogue and honest conversation.”

Such “dialogue and honest conversation” takes place among teens on a regular basis at the region’s two Boys and Girls Clubs sites, in Baraboo and Tomah.

The “Club” Teen Centers at each location offer a “Smart Girls” group for girls and a “League of Extraordinary Gentleman” for boys, each “a club within a club” for teens where they can talk with each other and learn from qualified, supportive adults about how to operate more effectively and healthily in society.

“That’s when things (like dating violence and other potential instances of abuse) come out,” DeSanto said. “We scratch the surface just by talking — this is why we know discussion in a safe, open spot is the best forum for things.”