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Many teens blame Rihanna, say dating violence normal

1 in 10 teens suffer abuse in romantic relationships, and many think it's often justified

By Megan Twohey and Bonnie Miller Rubin | Tribune reporters, Feb. 20, 2009 -- Nathen Cantu jotted down dozens of telephone numbers he had programmed into his cell phone but never bothered to learn.

Ed Loos, a junior at Lake Forest High School, said a common reaction among students to Chris Brown's alleged attack on Rihanna goes something like this: "Ha! She probably did something to provoke it."

In Chicago, Sullivan High School sophomore Adeola Matanmi has heard the same.

"People said, 'I would have punched her around too,' " Matanmi said. "And these were girls!"

As allegations of battery swirl around the famous couple, experts on domestic violence say the response from teenagers just a few years younger shows the desperate need to educate this age group about dating violence.

Their acceptance, or even approval, of abuse in romantic relationships is not a universal reaction. But it comes at a time when 1 in 10 teenagers has suffered such abuse and females ages 16 to 24 experience the highest rates of any age group, research shows.

In recent years, some schools and youth organizations have started educating teens about the dangers of dating violence. Rhode Island and Virginia have adopted laws requiring such instruction in the public schools.

But most states, including Illinois, don't have such a mandate, and education on the topic remains in short supply, experts say. Two of three new programs created by the federal Violence Against Women Act in 2005 to address teen dating violence were never funded.

"This incident has brought the issue into sharp focus," said Esta Soler, president of the California-based Family Violence Prevention Fund. "This type of education is not happening in any broad or consistent way. We need to take it to scale, to make sure it's happening in every community."

Details of the incident between singers Brown and Rihanna are fuzzy, but the story continues to create much buzz among teens across the Chicago area. Because she's 21 and he's 19, many teens see them as peers.

Katie Lullo, a junior at Elk Grove High School, said her classmates and friends were upset. "No one thinks it's right for a guy to hit a girl," she said. And when the topic arose at an after-school program at Evanston's YMCA, many participants said abuse was "bogus."

But other teens insist violence is sometimes justified in relationships.

While young fans have plastered Rihanna's MySpace page with notes of support, many comments on Brown's page express delight at the possibility that he battered a woman.

Kriana Jackson, a sophomore at Sullivan, said it's a sign of a broader culture of acceptance of abuse.

"There was a girl at school this week with a scratch on her eye," Jackson said. "She was talking openly about her boyfriend hitting her, but she was smiling and saying it was funny."

Young people carry these attitudes into adulthood, experts say, and young targets of dating violence are more likely to succumb to aggression in later relationships.

For that reason, experts see education and other prevention initiatives geared at teens and preteens as one of the best hopes for halting dating and domestic violence.

"We know that education is absolutely crucial to breaking the cycle of abuse and strengthening healthy relationships," said Candice Hopkins, director of loveisrespect.org, the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline, which started in 2007 and receives about 90 contacts a week.

Because young victims move in a different world than that of older people, they require unique interventions.

Text messaging and online social-networking sites, especially popular among teenagers, serve as tools for stalking and harassment. Victims often keep quiet, fearing that if they report another student's aggressive behavior, they will be socially ostracized—or that their parents will confiscate their cell phone or close a Facebook account.

Teens also can have a harder time severing contact with an abuser. Many are forced to see the perpetrator every day at school, sometimes in the same class. Young adults seeking an order of protection from Cook County judges must bring a guardian to apply on their behalf.

Last summer, the president of the National Association of Attorneys General launched a campaign called "Working Together to End the Violence" and specifically called on communities to focus on relationship abuse among young people. More recently, the Family Violence Prevention Fund launched a national public-service advertising campaign this month called "That's Not Cool" to help teens recognize digital dating abuse and take steps to prevent it.

The Chicago-based group Between Friends is among the non-profit organizations that go into schools to teach students about the signs of abusive control, why it's wrong and how to cultivate heathy relationships.

"When we first get there, it's not unusual for kids—both boys and girls—to say it's OK to hit your girlfriend or boyfriend," said Kathy Doherty, the organization's executive director. "By the time we're done, they say, yes, it is abuse, and, no, we shouldn't do that."

As Doherty and others work to expand such programming, they hope teachers, parents and others use the story about Brown and Rihanna to talk to teens about dating violence.

Loos said his law teacher at Lake Forest recently incorporated the story into class.

But when students brought it up in Chelsea Whitis' economics class at Lane Tech High School in Chicago, the teacher brushed it aside.

"He said the celebrities were getting too much attention and didn't want us to talk about it," Whitis said.

Copyright 2009, Chicago Tribune

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