It’s the Tuesday before Valentine’s Day at Gage Park High School.
Couples walk down the hall hand in hand, many of the girls holding roses that the student council is selling for two dollars apiece. One bold young man steals a kiss before a security guard hustles him into a classroom.
But this Hallmark-worthy scene covers up a reality of life at the high school, located at 56th and Rockwell on the Southwest Side.
In a survey last fall, one in five students said they were or had been in a relationship that included physical, emotional or sexual abuse.
“You can walk down the hallway, and a girl can get pushed in a locker or get smacked or hit with a rubber band,” said Brinina Green, a junior at Gage Park. “They think it’s cute, they laugh…but that could turn into something more serious and they wouldn’t know what to do in a situation that could be deadly.”
Gage Park is not alone. In fact, it comes in right around national averages, which show that about 20 percent of high-schoolers experience physical violence in their relationship. Between 20 and 30 percent report verbal or psychological abuse.
“People think that’s kid stuff, that’s puppy love,” said Deborah Lynch, an English teacher at Gage Park. “But it’s a real problem, and it was happening here.”
That concern led Lynch to found the Teen Dating Club in 2007, a weekly meeting of about a dozen rotating members who learn about healthy relationships.
And in October, the same concern led the club’s dozen or so members to conduct a survey of more than 700 of their classmates about dating violence. In addition to asking about abuse in their relationships, the survey also gauged attitudes about jealousy, violence, communication and compromise, to try to get at the root of the problem.
“We knew it was happening here, but we wanted to know exactly how much and why, so we could figure out how to fix it,” said Samantha Brito, a junior and a member of the club.
What they found surprised them.
Twenty-one percent of students said they were or had been in an abusive relationship. Almost two-thirds knew someone who had. Click here for highlights of the survey
“I was surprised how many kids had been through abuse or seen abuse but you would never know,” Green said. “They just keep it to themselves.”
Dating violence exists below the surface at most high schools, said Paul Schewe, director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Research on Violence at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Pressure to conform and the desire to be coupled up means that many teens in abusive relationships never talk about it.
“For young people, breaking up is such a terrible thing that needs to be avoided at all costs,” Schewe said. “It creates this pressure to stay in a relationship, no matter how unhealthy.”
Green put a more human face on it.
“I think it’s the idea of having somebody tell you, ‘I love you, you’re my world, I don’t wanna lose you,’” she said. “The sympathy, the kindness that you get makes you forget about all the bad stuff.”
Experts say most of these behaviors stem from a lack of social skills. Things like anger management and problem-solving aren’t part of most curriculums, the theory being that kids will learn them at home, Schewe said.
But at Gage Park, that message may not be getting through. Many of the kids come from single-parent homes and four in 10 reported in the survey that they had seen their parents in an abusive relationship.
“A lot of people here don’t have role models who can teach them anything, guidelines of what a healthy relationship should be,” Green said.
Schools can play an important role in providing those guidelines, Schewe said. Addressing bullying in elementary school, teaching problem-solving and communication skills in middle school, and talking about healthy relationships as students start to date can all cut down on the statistics of dating violence. “We need to be a little more focused on getting at this in the schools and not just assume kids will get it somewhere else,” Schewe said. “It’s a cycle of violence and it starts early – if you can get at it early, you may be able to make an impact down the road.”
Ilana Bodini, coalition coordinator of Healthy Chicago Lawn, a community
coalition, said the program could help bring the issue out of the dark
and spark a community dialogue.
“It’s important to get people talking about it,” Bodini said.