Education

Modesto, Riverbank teens leading the way to stop abusive relationships

Healthy and Responsible Relationship Troupe members talk about their group poster with Haven Women’s Center’s Holly Grace Palmer, left, during a meeting Wednesday  at Enochs High School in Modesto. The HARRT project at Enochs and Riverbank High are a pilot project for the state using teens to spread the message about healthy relationships.
Healthy and Responsible Relationship Troupe members talk about their group poster with Haven Women’s Center’s Holly Grace Palmer, left, during a meeting Wednesday at Enochs High School in Modesto. The HARRT project at Enochs and Riverbank High are a pilot project for the state using teens to spread the message about healthy relationships. naustin@modbee.com

Teens in Modesto and Riverbank are learning the danger of abusive relationships and just how pervasive they are – especially among young people. Next year, they will be spreading awareness to other high school students as part of a pilot project being watched statewide.

“A lot of people don’t realize that adolescent relationship abuse is an issue,” said Julia Zeuli, deputy director of the Oakland-based California Adolescent Health Collaborative. In a national survey, 1 in 3 teens said they had experienced some form of abuse in a relationship, she said. “It really is widespread. They’re calling it the next epidemic.”

Most parents do not know because most teens will not tell them.

“Young people are reluctant to tell adults what’s going on – 83 percent of 10th-graders said they would rather talk to a friend,” Zeuli said, which is why the project is training teens to talk to teens.

Her agency has joined with Golden Valley Health Centers and Haven Women’s Center of Stanislaus for a project funded by Blue Shield of California Foundation, one of 16 grants for efforts to reduce domestic violence. The Modesto-Riverbank project is the only one focused on adolescents, Zeuli said, and it’s drawing attention.

“We’re the demonstration site for young people. They’re looking at Enochs and Riverbank to see how you would implement a healthy relationship program led by young people for young people,” she said.

Some 16 freshmen through juniors at Enochs and 10 at Riverbank High are the heart and soul of the project, training this year and teaching the next. They call themselves the Healthy and Responsible Relationships Troupe, or HARRT.

What they want to tell other teens, a group gathered after school Wednesday at Enochs said, is you need to believe in yourself.

“Other people’s opinion doesn’t matter,” said sophomore Jessica Norwood. “You don’t need to fit in that box.”

“Don’t let other people sculpt you into the person they want you to be,” added junior Emily Tackett. “And don’t judge other people, because what goes around comes around.”

The world is too tied to stereotypes of men and women, as junior Brianna Joy sees it. “The rigidity of gender roles prevents women from getting into places of power and prevents men from showing their emotional side. It’s seen as a weakness,” Joy said.

Junior Paola Gonzalez said she catches herself thinking negative stereotypes. “Society has conditioned you to think that way. But it’s what’s the next thought that matters,” she said.

“Older folks, they grew up with it, but they can be trained,” said sophomore Meranda Garcia.

One change the teens want to make happen is to have information on what healthy relationships look like added to the mandatory high school health course.

“They just assume you known something, when you don’t,” Gonzalez said.

“They spend one day on abuse – one day!” said sophomore London Riddle.

“In middle school I was in an abusive relationship, but I thought that’s just what friends do,” Norwood said. “We want people to know what can happen, what to do if it does happen.”

Riverbank’s 10 students are doing the same training through the Riverbank Advisory Council, said adviser Angelica Carranza, with Golden Valley Health Centers.

“The group is very engaged in learning more about adolescent relationships and have shared their own personal stories as we discuss the issue,” Carranza said by email Thursday.

What teens are finding out is that unhealthy examples are all around them, said Enochs English teacher Debbie Adair, who advises the Enochs group with Holly Grace Palmer of the Haven.

Adair said her eyes were opened after seeing a news report about rape on college campuses – “I teach all seniors,” she said.

To make her students aware of such dangers, she put together a teaching segment with research on what a culture of violence looks like, and asked teens to decide if they live in one and each write a paper. Next, they created awareness campaigns about silence around assaults, how violence appears throughout casual language and even the sexualization of food in advertising.

“It’s crazy to read some of the stuff they submitted, but we’re oblivious,” Adair said, citing an ad with a roasting chicken lying, well, spread-eagle.

Her seniors will be presenting an “Ending the Culture of Violence” program from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday in the Enochs multipurpose room. Some will show their awareness campaigns. Others, including senior Brendan Pennington, will be on a panel discussing their life experiences.

Pennington’s experience was being beaten up regularly in elementary school. “I was pretty unhandsome as a kid,” he said. His experience was that the grown-ups he went to did not help. They punished him, instead of the bullies.

While Adair’s seniors will graduate and are not part of the two-year Blue Shield project, the synergy of both groups of teens discussing violence, abuse and what healthy relationships look like has brought the subject forward.

“The amount of interest we’ve seen in Riverbank and Modesto has been amazing,” Zeuli said. “They’ve stuck to it and they are so passionate.”

The HARRT teens are raising money to attend a three-day summer Bay Area training in using social media for social change. Donate at www.gofundme.com/harrtmodesto.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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