After studies emerged more than a decade ago showing that the highest rates of physical and sexual assault happen to women ages 16 to 24, programs to prevent abusive relationships have concentrated on high school and college students.
Some initiatives have shown promise, but overall statistics remain largely unchanged: the most recent government report stated that nearly one in 10 high school students said they had been physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend.
Now a diverse group that includes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and federal lawmakers is trying to forestall dating violence by addressing even younger students: middle schoolers. The goal is to educate them about relationships before they start dating in earnest, even though research shows that some seventh graders have already experienced physical and emotional harm while dating.
That is why, on a recent balmy evening here, 30 teams of teenage artists were kneeling over blackboards in the sculpture garden at the Boise Art Museum, sketching chalk interpretations of poems about relationships written by fellow students.
More than 400 teenagers and parents crowded into this first “ChalkHeart” competition. A bakery provided iced sugar cookies that read “Equality” and “Respect.” A collection of poetry from local students, titled “Love What’s Real” and culled from thousands of submissions, was distributed.
Jadn Soper, 14, brushed aside her electric pink hair as she drew, remarking that most eighth graders know couples who are in demeaning relationships.
“You can tell the way a girl’s mood changes when she’s with that person,” she said. “The boy was funny and charming until he reels you in, and then he’s demanding and has to have it his way.”
Jadn’s classmates from Lowell Scott Middle School nodded. “Middle school has gotten a lot more grown-up than you’d expect,” she added.
Kelly Miller, a former domestic violence prosecutor who runs Start Strong Idaho, the sponsor of the competition, agreed. “Most young people have a sense of what’s abusive,” she said, “but they don’t know what a healthy relationship means.”
The Boise area is one of 11 sites nationwide that each received a $1 million Start Strong grant for middle-school programs, mostly from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Esta Soler, president of Futures Without Violence, a national anti-violence organization, said there were many reasons to start talking to younger students about abuse.
In middle school, Ms. Soler said, they are rocketing through emotional and social development, beginning to make their own choices. “But they still respond to input from caring adults,” she added. A 2010 study of 1,430 seventh graders in eight middle schools in three cities underscores the need for such education.
The study, commissioned by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and released this spring, showed that three-quarters of students had already had a boyfriend or girlfriend. One in three said they had been victims of psychological dating violence; nearly one in six said they had experienced physical dating violence. Almost half said they had been touched in an unwanted sexual way or had been the target of sexual slurs.
It can be daunting to engage adolescents about intimate topics. To ease their awkwardness, Ms. Miller incorporates the students’ creative work and pop icons. For example, her staff created surveys rating the relationships of the characters in “The Hunger Games” books and movie. They sponsor poetry slams, with teenagers reading “Love What’s Real” poems, dancing to a “Relationship Remix” of hits.
Middle-school intervention programs are so new that assessing their effectiveness is difficult. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave grants to middle-school programs in four urban sites last fall. In reauthorization drafts this spring for the Violence Against Women Act — Michael D. Crapo, Republican of Idaho, was a co-author in the Senate — the eligibility age for dating violence education and service programs is now as young as 11.
To sustain elements of the Start Strong program after grants end this fall, staff members have trained health teachers in curriculums that reinforce social and emotional well-being.At Riverglen Junior High School, Patti Bellan, trained in Canada’s “Fourth R” program about relationships, teaches eighth-grade health at 8:45 a.m. Slight, with a low-key, piquant authority, Mrs. Bellan has clothed the class skeleton in a ChalkHeart T-shirt. She teaches body-language cues, strategies for risky settings and, on this day, responsible decision making.
She read from PowerPoint slides: a girl who has met an older boy online finally has the chance to see him, at his house, alone. What might happen if she does?
Another: a boy with a longtime girlfriend goes to a party out of town, where another girl flirts with him and invites him over. Consequences?
Students partnered to rank potential impacts — physical, emotional, legal, financial and family. They debated possible aftermaths. “My father would have an aneurysm!” shouted one girl. “My father would kill me!” shouted another. They spoke bluntly about rape, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, prosecution.
Then, Mrs. Bellan asked how long they took to rank the impacts. A minute, they estimated.
“A lot of people believe teenagers can’t make good decisions,” Mrs. Bellan said. “ I disagree. You have just shown that when you pause and think, you have the capability of seeing something through from all angles.”
Start Strong Idaho, a program of the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, works with experts in health and youth programming. It also enlists students who have overcome abusive relationships — an umbrella term for emotional, physical or sexual violence.
They include Laura Hampikian and Sara Hope Leonard. Each girl longed to escape family turmoil by creating what she imagined would be a stable romance.
Ms. Hampikian is now 20 and a confident college sophomore. But in the eighth grade she turned her life over to the bottomless neediness of her boyfriend, who threatened suicide if she left him, began cutting himself, and told her about his family’s violence. She did not realize she was slipping into a fog, detaching from her friends. Pleading with him on the phone nightly until 3 a.m., she believed it was her responsibility to keep him alive.
Ms. Leonard, 17, is a vibrant high school senior. But a few years ago, when her family was living in California, she did anything to please her bristling, possessive, ninth-grade boyfriend.
When her family moved to Boise, Ms. Leonard was so desperate to hold onto her boyfriend that she had them split a set of handcuffs and each wear half, symbolizing their attachment. She obeyed his rules: no giving out her number to boys; no group dates. She completely isolated herself in her new city.
It took both girls a year to extricate themselves from the relationships. When Ms. Leonard graduates from college, she plans to counsel sex-trafficking victims. Ms. Hampikian has been speaking out about healthy teenage relationships as a contestant in the Miss Idaho pageant.
During their crises, neither felt she could tell her parents. That is why, in part, Ms. Miller includes parents in some Start Strong programs.
“Parents themselves underestimate their power to reach young teens,” she said.
One recent night at Riverglen Junior High, parents and sixth graders attended separate workshops about social dynamics they might encounter in the seventh grade.
Start Strong educators handed out statements about relationship behaviors. The students taped statements under columns labeled “Healthy” or “Unhealthy.” (Down the hall, parents had a similar exercise.)
“Jealous when your friend talks to others.”
“Gets insecure when someone doesn’t text back right away.”
Some statements were placed uncertainly between the columns.
“I couldn’t decide,” one boy admitted.
“Some of these are tough to figure out,” said Melissa Ruth, a counselor. She smiled at him. “We’ll talk about it.”