In recent years, parents and educators have become increasingly concerned about dating violence among high school students.
But a new study unveiled at the National Conference on Health and Domestic Violence in San Francisco on Thursday shows abusive relationships can begin as early as middle school.
“These students are dating. More than 75 percent of them told us that they had had a boyfriend or girlfriend. And they are already experiencing dating aggression,” said Deborah Gibbs, a researcher with RTI International. The North Carolina-based institute conducted the study of more than 1,400 seventh-graders across the country.
The findings did not come as a surprise to Edith Rodriguez, an eighth-grader at Frick Middle School in Oakland.
“I see it often, like every day,” she said. “It’s sad."
Edith said dating relationships, which these days begin as early as seventh grade, often involve jealousy and controlling behavior.
Griffon Stewart, an eighth-grader at Oakland’s Edna Brewer Middle School, said he witnessed couples fighting every day in the hallways and cafeteria.
Jayme Lollie, the community school manager at Frick Middle School, echoed the teens’ concerns.
“We see it in the hallway, we see it at lunch, we see it in the yard, and we see it very young,” she said.
The Oakland Unified School District is working to address the problem by participating in Start Strong, a program to promote healthy relationships among 11- to 14-year-olds. The project is funded by $18 million from Blue Shield of California and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Lollie said educators hoped that by teaching students about the signs of dating abuse, they could prevent abusive relationships later on.
“They’re better equipped to stay out of these cycles,” she said.
Edith said the Start Strong lessons she had earlier this year were helpful because now she and her friends know the signs of an abusive relationship and could alert an adult.
“If more schools had it, I guess there would be less violence,” she said.
75% Seventh-graders who reported having a relationship
37% Seventh-graders who reported being a victim of psychological abuse in past six months
15% Seventh-graders who reported being a victim of physical dating violence in past six months
49% Seventh-graders who reported being a victim of sexual harassment in past six months
Source: RTI International