To some adults, it seems a little absurd that middle school and high school students might need help getting out of an abusive or even violent relationship.
Those children — who do experience dating violence — have to poke around from one supposedly trusted adult to the next, hoping they’ll find someone with the answers and resources they need. And that’s if they’re even brave enough to start those conversations.
That lack of understanding hurt Kamella Wolfork when she was a sophomore in high school. Her boyfriend shoved her up a flight of concrete stairs, hurting her knees. He held her down sometimes so she couldn’t get up and tried to isolate her from friends at lunch.
Wolfork, now a 21-year-old student at Ivy Tech in Indianapolis, tried going to counselors at the now-closed Carpe Diem charter school, but Wolfolk said they told her she was being too dramatic, and the principal called her too emotional and said she should find another school.
Wolfork finally confided in her mother, who had experienced dating violence as an adult. She told Wolfork to document all of their conversations and enrolled her daughter at Crispus Attucks High School.
Wolfork got a protective order when she was a freshman in college and said she hasn’t had an issue since.
Students in Wolfork’s situation may be in a better position to get help now, thanks to the Domestic Violence Network (DVN), which has a four- to seven-day program called “The Change Project” that it takes into schools.
About 70% of children who see domestic violence growing up go on to become perpetrators or victims of that kind of violence, according to Colleen Curtin, youth program coordinator for DVN.
“I usually walk into classrooms with the idea in my head that some folks in here have experienced this,” Curtin said. “… And there’s also someone sitting in this classroom who’s gonna realize this is a dynamic in their relationship.”
Wolfork didn’t know that statistic at the time, but it would have made sense after her own mother’s experience and learning her boyfriend’s father was also abusive.
The DVN curriculum is for sixth to 12th graders and gives students information if they want to become advocates. The program has been around in some version for about five years.
Sometimes teachers contact DVN after an incident with one of their students, Curtin said, and she can go into that school’s 9th grade health class, as an example, to teach students about what resources are available, the signs of dating violence and what a healthy relationship looks like.
Students occasionally approach Curtin, she said, but it’s more likely that students are talking with each other and getting more comfortable with the idea of seeking help.
School administrators who might otherwise brush off those concerns also get educated on what’s happening to their students.
At Crispus Attucks, Wolfork was in an after-school program — No More Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault — which is part of DVN.
But what if she had the DVN curriculum at any point leading up to the time she found herself in an abusive relationship?
“I think someone would have believed me at that point,” Wolfork said, “and it wouldn’t have gotten as far as it did.”
Wolfork wants to be a teacher now, in part because she knows her experiences could help students dealing with dating violence or any other issues that adults might not take seriously.
Wolfork said it’s important to understand that children may use emotions and actions — misbehavior, for example — when they can’t find the words to express their concerns or don’t trust anyone enough to tell them what’s going on.
“Kids are trying to tell us something,” she said. “We need to look at what’s going on here. They don’t need to be in trouble. They need to be talked to. They need to be counseled.”
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.