CHICAGO--"I don’t know why Rihanna complained, Chris Brown could beat me anytime he wanted to.”
This Tweet and similar others circulated in the days following Sunday’s Grammy Awards, where Chris Brown, known primarily as a singer and secondarily as the allegedly abusive ex-boyfriend of pop star Rihanna, performed twice during the two-hour show. His appearance came in the middle of Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month.
The flippant responses to Brown's appearance -- from other artists, from the Grammy Foundation, which does extensive outreach work with youth, and from young people across social media platforms -- were especially jarring considering statistics showing that 1.5 million high school students will be abused by a dating partner in the Unite States this year.
CLOSE TO HOME
In Chicago, public discourse over abusive themes in the media came to a head at Pitchfork Music Festival last summer, where L.A.-based hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All performed in spite of some public outcry against their pro-violence lyrics which frequently reference rape.
Hoping to counter that conversation, local anti-violence nonprofit Between Friends distributed fans at the festival reading, "Cool it: don't be a fan of domestic violence."
But demonstrations are only part of Between Friends' operations. Based in Rogers Park on Chicago's North Side, the advocacy group provides citywide counseling, legal assistance and health care education, centered on domestic violence. It also operates a youth-oriented education program called Relationship Education: A Choice for Hope (REACH), which has provided anti-violence education in public schools since 1995.
In a 2010 study of the teens it serves, the organization found high incidences of partner abuse in the public schools among with middle and high school students, said Kathy Doherty, Between Friends' executive director.
"When we took a look at how many seventh-graders were reporting that they had a boyfriend or girlfriend, 82 percent of the students we talked to said they had a boyfriend or girlfriend, and 14 percent said they had been abused by a dating partner," Doherty said.
"When we got up to eleventh grade, 95 percent of those eleventh-graders said they had had a dating experience, and 52 percent of them reported that they had been abused by a dating partner. And 81 percent of them said that they knew somebody personally who'd been in an abusive relationship."
Doherty said one big problem is that many victims don't recognize abuse when they see it.
MORE THAN JUST A TWEET
A study commissioned by the U.S. Surgeon General in 2000 explains the intersection of young minds and damaging or unsafe messages about violence in the media. Developmentally, tweens and teens are primed to imitate observed behaviors, and base social behaviors on them.
Colleen Norton, the prevention and education manager for Between Friends who helps run the group's youth-oriented Facebook page, said the negative messages about abuse that bombard teens go unbalanced with positive information.
"Kids are really impacted by what's going on in the media these days, and I think social media has made that even more apparent," Norton said, in reference to the Brown Twitter response. "For a lot of [the young adults at school talks], we're the first people that have ever come into their classroom or ever had a conversation with them about violence in dating relationships, to let them know that this isn't normal, that no one deserves to be abused."
[Read Between Friends' Director of Development Amanda Espitia's blog exploring the dangerous messages in reality TV.]
In one of the program's success stories, a 17-year-old student realized during one of the group's in-class presentations that her mother and father's tumultuous relationship constituted abuse; eventually, she acknowledged that her boyfriend's treatment did, too.
With the help of one of the agency's support groups, she ended the relationship, and later worked as a peer advocate in the group's summer outreach program.
A LONG WAY TO GO
But guiding young adults toward healthy relationships is becoming increasingly difficult as cyberspace disseminates mixed messages with lightning speed and educators said it's been difficult to keep up.
"Some of the kids have smart phones, so it's almost instantaneous that they can get online, and they can start a rumor, or say something, or degrade someone, and it can spread extremely quickly," says Paul Robinson, a prevention education specialist with Between Friends. "Before the end of the school day, it can be spread all over the internet, all over people's Facebook pages ... We have a lot of students who disclose that happening to them."
[Scroll down for a promotional video about remote harassment from LoveisRespect.org, a crisis line and advocacy group that has specifically targeted online abuse through social media.]
Youth advocates do know that peers have some of the strongest influence over individuals' choices and behavior. This year, Between Friends wants to create a dialogue between young people at a theatrical event Saturday called "Love Not Hate: Building Relationships without Abuse."
Youth from A Long Walk Home, the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, the Better Boys Foundation and other groups across the city will perform student-written skits that highlight warning signs and model healthy relationships at 5 p.m. Saturday at the Center on Halsted. The event is free, and Yesenia Maldonado, Between Friends' program director, said the goal is to connect students who need to hear these messages with empowered youth able to guide them.
"This is a time when they're really looking at their peers for guidance more than adults," Maldonado says. "That's why this play is so powerful -- it is young people speaking to young people, at a time in their development when they're looking to separate from adults and parents."