By Amy Highness, Community Education Coordinator
February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about one in four teens reports verbal, physical, emotional, or sexual violence each year. In that light, I sat down with Kiley Lentsch, a violence prevention advocate at Alexandra House, to learn a bit more about her work and what she sees as the most pressing issues for the teens she works with. Kiley has been with Alexandra House for 2.5 years and she recently received her MA in Criminal Justice. Here’s what she had to say…
What do you do as a violence prevention advocate?
I do both intervention work and prevention work with youth, specifically middle school and high school age students. Most of my time is spent in high schools, doing a lot of presentations to different classrooms. Mainly I talk about dating violence – getting kids used to the idea that it’s not OK if someone is hurting you, that this is an important issue – creating that awareness. I also meet with students one-on-one if they have questions or if they themselves have been victimized, and I facilitate healthy relationship support groups in each of my high schools. I also
take part in the Choose Respect program in the middle schools, which is more prevention-based. And then we also have some summer programming. Overall, just trying to engage youth and spread the message and give them an outlet to talk about it.
Do you find most of your intervention referrals come from students themselves or from other people around them?
A lot of them come from the students themselves. After we do presentations we have an evaluation form they fill out and there is a box they can check if they would like to meet with an advocate. I will get a couple from friends who will come to me after presentations and say, “I have a friend I’m worried about. What should I do?”, and then I can meet with that person. I also get referrals from counselors, teachers, and admin staff at the school.
What is the most rewarding part of the work you do?
One of my first experiences where I really felt like I was doing something that mattered was when a student came up after a presentation and said, “Oh my gosh, you just described me.” I’ve also had boys who will come up and say “I think I’m abusive.” I’m glad that they have the awareness to say, “I’m doing something wrong, I need to change.” Most people have a hard time accepting this within themselves. Teenage years are really tough years, and I know that most of the students are very appreciative that I will come and talk to them – that it’s a safe place to talk about what’s going on. I feel like I’m helping the youth to hopefully have better relationships and live happier lives. Just being part of an overall team trying to help youth grow up into healthy adults is rewarding.
What part of your work do you find most challenging?
Teens live in the moment. What they feel is very real to them and it can be tough to see beyond feeling like they’ll never find anyone else. I have to find creative ways to ask questions and facilitate things in a way that illustrates to them what I am talking about in their own lives, then they can have that light bulb moment and they see how it fits together. It can’t feel like they’re in a classroom taking a test because these are skills they’re building for their lives. I have students I’ve been working with a long time, so I always try to mix it up too. I also find myself really challenged to find different ways of presenting information to groups that are all boys or all girls because they react very differently. I’ve especially expanded my range to work with the boys and find ways of meeting them where they’re at.
How do you see teens handling the issue of dating violence?
I see a lot of them completely overlooking it, saying “that’s not violence”. I think most people understand the physical and sexual parts. You don’t hit people – we learn that in kindergarten. Some of the sexual things, most students know. You don’t physically force someone to do something. But when we get into that manipulation with sexual activity, or when we get into the name calling, taking your partner’s phone and going through it – that emotional and verbal abuse stuff, I think it’s easier for it to be overlooked as something that just happens in dating, normal almost. I ask them, “How many of you have taken your partner’s phone to look through it?” And most of them have done that. They have to figure out why that might not be the healthiest choice in a dating relationship, why that might be a warning sign that something isn’t right. But it’s the same thing with domestic violence between adults too – a lot of people think it’s just words, not understanding how hurtful words and non-physical actions can be. But I also see students who do ask for help and say, “This is over my head and I don’t know how to get out.” So I see positive and negative reactions. We talk a lot about the bystander effect – what if you witness something happening? I think things happen all the time in the hallways and people know they’re wrong but they just walk past it. They don’t want to be that person with the target on their back by standing up to stop it. I see a lot of that – overlooking and not wanting to deal with it, saying just be happy you have a boyfriend or girlfriend.
What do you think our community needs to know about teen dating violence?
Just that it’s out there. I don’t think even a lot of parents understand how big of an issue it really is. I’m constantly busy meeting with students – sometimes it’s about family violence as well, but I have a lot of students dealing with dating violence. There are a lot of unhealthy behaviors out there, and I’m not even going to get into where that comes from because it’s such an intricate mess of different factors – people not connecting how the media and pop culture influence our relationship expectations, for example. I definitely don’t think the average person is aware of how often this is happening and how young it’s happening. I know some middle schools are hesitant to even talk about dating in general – they don’t want to use that word because they don’t think it’s an issue. I’d love to think that middle school is all fun and games, but that’s not the reality. Kids are dating, they all have cell phones now and they communicate in ways maybe their parents aren’t able to see. There are some big things going on with just the beginning stages of control and jealousy. There might be a skewed view from adults who don’t understand the experience of a teenager in our current culture. Times have changed. Even from the time I was in high school, which wasn’t even all that long ago, I feel like this is a whole different world sometimes! There are a lot of things going on that weren’t present back then.
What is one thing you think young people can do to take a stand?
There are a lot of really good programs that run with this. Coon Rapids High School does an awesome Walkathon every year (April 15 this year!) to raise money for Alexandra House and raise awareness. But it doesn’t even have to be that big. I think if you want to make a difference as a teen, it can be little things. If you see something in the school hallway you can report it or say stop. If you are scared of retaliation, maybe talk to the victim afterwards and ask them if they’re OK. A lot of students do know it’s not OK, but having the confidence to speak up in high school…it can make you a target. I like to give people a lot of options, even just making an anonymous report to the office and saying someone is intimidating someone else. And it really starts with our own relationships, even as teens. Modeling good relationships is so important because of all the people who look up to teenagers – younger siblings, cousins, neighbors, etc. It’s also important for the individual’s own well-being because just like all people, teenagers deserve respect from their dating partners. They need to give respect and also make sure they get that respect back.