Three Greenwich High school juniors from the school’s YNET club led an event at Greenwich Town Hall on Monday to kick off Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month.
YWCA Greenwich director Mary Lee Kiernan introduced Jennie Olmsted, Elizabeth Casolo and Anna DeMakes.
YNET is a youth driven, violence prevention program that focuses on leadership, peer education and teen dating violence prevention education.
“Dating abuse can happen to anyone regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, socio-economic standing, ethnicity, religion or culture,” Kiernan said.
“One in 10 high school students report that they have been purposely hit, slapped or physically injured by a boyfriend or girlfriend, and unfortunately only one third of those teens ever told anyone about the abuse.” – Mary Lee Kiernan, YWCA Greenwich
YNET’s Ana DeMakes explained that YNET stands for youth network.
The club has been working to prevent teen dating violence and promote healthy relationships since 1996, when the YWCA domestic abuse services began receiving a high number of hotline calls from high school students.
At GHS this month the club plans to sell Valentines with messages about healthy relationships like, “Be Mine. Just kidding, be your own autonomous person,” as a way to talk about healthy relationships with peers.
The club is also planning “The empty desk day,” where an empty desk is reserved in each classroom with an explanation that a student is absent due to an abusive relationship, such as, “Sarah couldn’t come to school today because her partner kept her up awake all night texting all night.”
YNET leader Elizabeth Casolo gave examples of ways dating partners exercise power and control. “It’s not only physical. Abuse in a teen relationship can include demanding to see text messages, pressuring the person to quit their after school job or regularly throwing in a degrading comment.”
Elizabeth said one in three adolescents in the US is a victim of physical, sexual emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner.
“Young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are three times as likely to be in an abusive relationship,” Ana said. “We want our peers to know teen dating violence happens, even in Greenwich. It can happen to anyone, regardless of gender, race, age or socio-economic status.”
Ana said people might assume that teen relationships aren’t serious, and that young people might not have to worry about divorce, but for teens it is no easier to end a relationship than for adults.
“Think about how hard it might be to break up with someone you see in school every day. Maybe you ride the same bus. Maybe your parents are friends. Or you’re in the same friend group,” she said. “One of the most important things YNET does is to encourage students who might be in unhealthy relationships to reach out for help. YNET members are trained to support our peers and connect them to the professional services of the YWCA.”
In 2018 the YWCA Greenwich responded to over 3,700 calls to their hotline.
YNET’s Jennie Olmsted said if parents, teachers or caring adults suspect a teen in their life is in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, they should express their concerns without anger.
“Say what you’ve witnessed and what you’re concerned about,” Jennie said. “Listen to your child. If you talk over them, they may shut down. Resist the urge to solve the problem for them. Reserve judgement and do not criticize the abuser or your child may be quick to defend them.”
Jennie’s advice to friends of someone in an abusive relationship is to talk to and listen to the person.
“Allow them to open up at their own pace, and stand by them and be patient and encourage them to seek help through YNET and domestic abuse services at YWCA,” Jennie said.
First Selectman Fred Camillo read a proclamation designating February as Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month.
The proclamation noted that high school students who experience physical violence in a dating relationship are more likely to use drugs and alcohol and are at a greater risk of suicide. Also they are much more likely to carry patterns of abuse into future relationships.
The proclamation also noted that teens who experience dating violence are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior and unhealthy dieting behaviors, and have low academic performance and truancy, disrupting normal development of self-esteem and body image.
Only 33% of teens who are in an abusive relationship ever tell anyone about the abuse and 81% of parents surveyed either believe teen dating violence is not an issue or admit they do not know if it is one.
Greenwich Police Chief James Heavey applauded the work of YWCA Greenwich and YNET.
Chief Heavey said last year Greenwich Police responded to 279 incidents of domestic violence. However, he said that number was only a small portion of the people receiving services from the YWCA.
“We hope that the number last year is higher because more people are reporting it, and not because there are more incidents,” Heavey said.
Meredith Gold, Director of YWCA Greenwich Domestic Abuse Services, said there remains much work to do to educate teens about healthy and unhealthy relationships.
“Our very first dating relationship often sets the tone and dynamic of our future relationships as adults,” Ms Gold said.
Gold said that the YWCA’s community education team works with students in Greenwich as early as Kindergarten where they focus on pro-social behavior and teach specific healthy relationship skills.
The YWCA, along with Greenwich United Way, is planning an event on Thursday, February 27, at 6:30 pm called “Speak Up, Speak Out: Celebrating Our Stories with Kane Smego.”
The dynamic interactive performance will focus on issues of race, gender, community building, and the stories everyone carries.
Through spoken word poetry, Smego will take listeners on a journey exploring the role that layered identities, experiences, and stories play in leadership, community engagement, and building relationships across lines of difference.
The event will take place at YWCA Greenwich, 259 East Putnam Avenue, Greenwich, and it is free and open to the public.
If you, or someone you know, is experiencing abuse, there is help. Call the YWCA Greenwich Domestic Abuse 24/7 Hotline at 203-622-0003.