Thursday, December 24, 2009
Bridgeport teens take message on dating violence to Washington, D.C.
Dating violence is not an easy subject to approach publicly, especially for teens. But two Bridgeport teens traveled to Washington, D.C. to raise awareness about this important topic at the highest level of government.
Katie O’Neill and Quentin Pugh, both members of YouthSpeak, were part of a round-table discussion Dec. 3 with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder at the Department of Justice.
Sitting at the table with them were eight other youngsters from the Northeast, along with some parents and program coordinators for Start Strong, an initiative funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
“Finally someone was listening to us,” Quentin said of the round-table discussion. He said both Duncan and Holder listened intently to what he and his peers had to say, taking notes and asking questions.
“They wanted to know what they could do to help,” Quentin said.
Dating violence is commonly defined as one partner maintaining control over the other through abusive behavior, which can be exerted through physical force or emotional threats. Most victims are women.
This type of coercion effects youngsters at many levels, Katie said, and often translates into increased truancy, drop-out and teen pregnancy rates.
“People are sometimes shocked by our statistics,” she said. “One in three teens have been or will be involved in an abusive relationship.”
The teens invited to the session by Holder all are involved in the Start Strong initiative, with the goal of “Building Healthy Teen Relationships.” The Johnson Foundation, together with Blue Shield of California Foundation, committed $18 million dollars to Start Strong.
They chose 11 sites, including Bridgeport, through RYASAP, out of 500 applicants from around the country to help promote healthy relationships to 11- to 14-year-olds.
RYASAP will receive $1 million to implement its MYO Program, or “Mine, Yours, Ours — What’s Right in a Relationship.” It will collaborate with local partners such as the Center for Women & Families of Eastern Fairfield County and the Greater Bridgeport Adolescent Pregnancy Program to educate sixth- to eighth-graders on teen dating violence.
It is hoped that by reaching youth during this important period of development, they will be better equipped to deal with dating issues as they move through adolescence and into adulthood.
In financing these types of programs, the Johnson Foundation is trying to tackle the problem at its roots.
“Intimate-partner violence is one of our nation’s most serious public health problems,” Dr. James Marks, director of the foundation’s Health Group, said in a press release. “In addition to severely physically injuring women and men, it undermines the fundamental idea of family as a place of support and nurture.”
Quentin said YouthSpeak, a RYASAP outreach program, took up the issue of dating violence early this year, when news of the violent breakup between pop music star Rihanna and rapper Chris Brown made headlines.
That set off a discussion about dating violence in their youth group.
The group meets every Wednesday after school at Playhouse on the Green. Quentin, a senior at Fairfield College Preparatory School in Fairfield, and Katie, a senior at St. Joseph High School in Trumbull, co-chair the group.
They researched different Web sites about dating violence and started an awareness campaign.
They reached out to the community and organized a “Speak Out” event, with skits showing the difference between a healthy, a mediocre and a bad relationship. They also organized a “fashion statistics” show, which they took to the streets of Bridgeport last October.
Quentin said healthy relationships and dating violence are not topics taught in school, but he thinks they should be.
In fact, it will be a topic that Bridgeport students will learn more about once the Start Strong message is taught in the schools.
Paige Nelson, RYASAP youth and community director and head of the Start Strong initiative, accompanied the teens to Washington. Also traveling with them was Katie’s mother, Maria O’Neill, principal of St. Andrew School in the North End.
O’Neill said it was a “phenomenal experience” to see her daughter speak to the U.S. attorney general and education secretary.
As a mother and school administrator, she said she was especially concerned about the digital messaging youngsters engage in. “The parent is just a silent bystander,” O’Neil said.
Nelson, the Youth and Community director for RYASAP, said a lot of educational issues such as truancy or teen violence are tied up in “relationship stuff.”
“The kids have to battle a lot of incorrect models,” she said.