08/30/2012 10:50 am ET Updated Oct 30, 2012

Recent Study Underscores Importance of Improving School Readiness to Address Dating Violence

"Even if the school personnel are willing to assist student survivors of ADV [adolescent dating violence] or are required to assist survivors of ADV, in all likelihood they cannot provide comprehensive quality assistance."
- Khubchandani, Price, Thompson, Dake, Wiblishauser and Telljohann

Our nation's high school counselors may be ill-equipped to assist students struggling with physical, sexual, or emotional dating violence, according to a recent study in the Journal of Pediatrics. Amongst the counselors responding to the survey, the majority was found to have neither specific training nor protocols in place to help these students when incidents of violence occur. The results of this study are especially disconcerting for young women, given that about 1 in 5 female high school students report being physically and/or sexually abused by a dating partner. In a 2009 survey in Illinois, 13.8 percent of students reported being a victim of dating violence and 9 percent reported having been sexually assaulted. If these figures are indicative of the entire population, around 87,000 high school students in Illinois struggled with dating violence in that year alone.

The prevalence of dating violence and the results of this study underscore the vital importance of efforts to improve school personnel responses to students who are survivors of domestic or sexual violence, including counseling services. To address this issue in Illinois, the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law has partnered with domestic and sexual violence service providers, educators, school nurses and social workers, and students and their parents to form the Ensuring Success in School Coalition. The Coalition develops targeted policy and legislative initiatives with the goal of ensuring that student victims are safe, stay in school, succeed academically, and complete their education. In 2007 the Coalition successfully advanced legislation in Illinois that generated two changes: the development of a task force that would study these issues and a biannual training for school personnel on the needs of students who are victims of domestic or sexual violence.

The 2007 Act led to the creation of the Ensuring Success in School Task Force which, in a report submitted to the Illinois General Assembly in 2010, made a series of policy and protocol recommendations for Illinois schools. Among the recommendations, the task force proposed designating one person in each school to act as the "go to" person to help address the situation at hand, improvements to student confidentiality policies and safety precautions, as well as ways to accommodate survivors, particularly if the perpetrator is a fellow student. In addition, the task force recommended having written policies and protocols in place so that all students and school personnel know that this is a problem that is taken seriously and that there is a clear path forward for survivors to remain safe and in school. The Ensuring Success in School Coalition is currently developing a written model policy based on the task force recommendations and is crafting legislation to strengthen the enforcement of these policies.

School counseling provides a unique setting for students to address their needs related to dating violence. However, while the majority of the school counselors in the study had in fact assisted survivors of dating violence in the previous two years, only 29 percent had received training on dating violence. Furthermore, 81.3 percent reported no protocol in their school to guide school personnel in their responses to incidents of dating violence. Since dating violence has been associated with higher dropout rates, increased risk of substance use, unhealthy weight control behaviors, sexual risk behaviors, pregnancy, and suicide, it is imperative that our nation's schools adopt targeted policies and practices like those recommended by the Ensuring Success in School Task Force and developed more fully by the Ensuring Success in School Coalition. Only then can our nation provide all its students with a safe and supportive learning environment where they can develop their intellect, their skills and ultimately realize their potential as students, professionals and citizens.

Wendy Pollack and the Ensuring Success in School Coalition
Leslie Paluch contributed to this article