Many teens in relationships run risk of abuse, county survey shows

  • Monica Moran, who is the manager of the domestic violence prevention program with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, Thursday at the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Published: 10/30/2017 9:16:36 PM

A third of the county’s teens who date are at risk for getting into abusive relationships, according to a recent study.

That number, as well as other information on how teens date, is being seen as a wake-up call and a starting point for at least one professional.

“There is not a lot of local data on dating violence in our teens,” said Monica Moran, manager of the domestic violence prevention program with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.

“If we want to do more to prevent domestic violence, we have to start with getting that data,” Moran said. “A lot of people feel like ‘it’s not happening,’ (or) ‘they’re too young.’ I know that to not be true but it’s a lot more convincing if you have the data.”

The information comes from the 2017 Massachusetts Prevention Needs Assessment Survey, which asks middle and high schoolers to report on their attitudes and norms around substance use and misuse as well as dating practices.

The survey, sponsored by the Strategic Planning Initiative for Families and Youth (SPIFFY) and the Collaborative for Educational Services, polled a total of 3,320 public school students in the county’s 13 school districts in grades 8, 10 and 12. The survey is conducted every two years and relies on students to confidentially self-report on a variety of topics.

Most of the teen dating questions were added onto the survey in 2015. This year an additional question asked if students had ever been in a dating relationship. Using that information, those who analyze the data are able to look at that specific subset of students.

By the numbers

The information, while shocking to some, is consistent with data on adult domestic violence.

“We know one in four women over her lifetime will experience domestic violence and this leads right into that,” Moran said.

Of those students who reported they have been in a dating relationship:

♦ Nearly 20 percent reported being with someone who told them what they could and could not wear.

♦ Around 33 percent reported dating someone who controlled whom they could talk or spend time with.

♦ Just over 14 percent reported being forced or pressured into sexual activity when they did not want to.

For the most part, girls were more than twice as likely to experience the behavior as boys.

Numbers for transgender or gender-neutral teens or those who identified in another manner each accounted for less than 1 percent of the total data. Transgender students consistently reported higher percentages of the negative behaviors than those of other genders.

Using the information, Moran said she is able to talk to schools about the seriousness of the issue and the importance of comprehensive education and prevention of dating violence.

“It’s really stunning if you think about the fact that a third of our kids that are dating are at risk,” Moran said. “We have research-based curriculum that significantly reduces dating violence and as a society we are not using. We are not doing what we know that we can do.

“If you look at how destructive domestic violence is when you get older, we’re not picking a low-hanging fruit,” Moran said.

Creating a safe space

In the schools, groups like the University of Massachusetts Center for Women and Community and Safe Passage work with students directly or through programming to provide prevention education and support.

At Easthampton and Hampshire Regional high schools, students in need or at risk can be referred to a voluntary group to learn about what abusive behavior looks like, how to negotiate conflict and how to develop positive communication skills, according to Becky Lockwood, the associate director of counseling and rape crisis services with the Center for Women and Community

The center’s teen specialist also offers “universal prevention” programming.

As the manager of Safe Passage’s Children’s Program, Bridget Mulkerrins works with various schools on violence-prevention programming for students and teachers. Last school year at Northampton High School, a pilot program was introduced to teach students about healthy relationships and teen dating violence.

There is no state mandate or state-implemented program around the topic of teen dating violence. A lack of education on the signs of domestic violence may have actually led to underreporting by teens, Mulkerrins said.

“I think if there is not knowledge on how to identify something, then even on a self-reporting survey, people who are actually in an unsafe situation ... then they may not have the assessment skills to really identify that something is unhealthy or controlling,” Mulkerrins said.

The violence, though, is preventable Mulkerrins said.

“Everybody can make a difference,” she said.

Healthy relationships

Almost 30 percent of students surveyed said they spoke with a parent or a trusted adult about healthy relationships. That’s a good thing for Moran.

“I really think it’s positive that kids are talking about it and they are talking to their parents. I think that is key,” Moran said. “Domestic violence gets stronger when we are silent and it gets weaker when we are talking about it because we unearth these things.”

Overall, the survey found that 62.4 percent discussed healthy relationships or dating violence within the past year.

Going against the belief that “everyone is doing it,” many teens and young adults — around 48 percent — reported they had never been in a dating relationship.

“I’m always looking at this data and saying, if we are saying 22 percent of girls are dating someone who has called them names — that means almost 80 percent of those who have dated haven’t had someone call them names,” Moran said.

The entire report can be found on the Collaborative for Educational Services website (

Resources on domestic abuse can be found at and

Emily Cutts can be reached at

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