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California and the West

Course Targets Abusive Teenage Relationships

Violence: State grant funds pioneering program at SELF High School in Irvine. Experts say problem is pervasive at all socioeconomic levels.

January 05, 1998|LORENZA MUNOZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — Emily's high school boyfriend likes to play a little game with her.

Resting his 180-pound frame on her slight 17-year-old body, he holds her down by her wrists until they bruise, tickling her until she starts to cry and loses her breath.

He won't stop until she calls him "Daddy."

If she goes out, she must call him as soon as she returns home.

Most important, she is only allowed to talk to three girls at school, and he better not catch her talking to any guys--or else.

"I don't even have a social life. I have to kick it with him 24/7," she said, using the slang expression for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. "I'm afraid of him. Every day we fight. He breaks up with me and then he calls me and says, 'I'm sorry.' I have a fear of being by myself," she said, nervously fiddling with her hands.

Alarmed by the number of girls in her classroom who were involved in abusive relationships like Emily's, Natalie Harrigan, a teacher at SELF High School in Irvine, decided to act. With the help and support of the school principal, Paul Mills, Harrigan applied for a state grant to fund a course on domestic violence.

The proposal was accepted, and SELF High School became the first school in California to receive the four-year grant from the attorney general's office and the Department of Education to teach the course on domestic violence.

"It is an issue that needs to be addressed among teens, especially with an emphasis on prevention," said Olin Jones, head of the attorney general's school and community violence prevention program. "I'm used to dealing with gang-related violence, and that is what is so interesting about this grant."

"I would say at least 50% of the girls at this school have real warped views about what a healthy relationship should be," said Harrigan. "We were starting to hear many, many stories--some of them were minor, others were major. These kids have nowhere else to go."

"From Newport Beach to wherever, the socioeconomic status of the school does not matter," said Jane Shade, head of the Orange County district attorney's Family Violence Unit. "It is just everywhere, and nobody should be misguided or misled that it only happens in certain parts of town or certain schools, because that is not true."

Students in the course at SELF High School, an alternative school, learn about domestic violence and are taught to understand the cycle that usually continues for generations unless it is broken by intervention.

In class, a dozen teenagers discuss their emotions, give each other advice on what a good relationship should be like and share their frustrations about relationships gone awry.

Enrollment is open to all students, but often Harrigan handpicks the students who she knows are involved in bad relationships.

In most cases, the teenagers are not involved in physically abusive relationships, but domestic violence experts say that jealous or controlling boyfriends often become violent over time.

Many of the young women are dating boys who are extremely possessive and jealous. Many of the males set rules for their girlfriends, such as forbidding them to talk to other boys or demanding that they wear loose clothing so nobody can see their figures.

What Harrigan and others are desperately trying to avoid are tragedies like the death of 19-year-old Megan Whalley of Orange and her 13-month-old son, who were killed three years ago by her boyfriend, Danny Eugene Stewart.

Or the more recent fatal shooting of 16-year-old Catherine Tran by her ex-boyfriend, who then killed himself on the campus of John Glenn High School in Norwalk.

The problem is widespread, counselors and law enforcement officials say.

Last year in Orange County, 33% of the 1,300 people who called the county's sexual assault hotline or met with a counselor at a hospital for a rape exam were 12 to 17 years old, according to law enforcement officials.

For many teenagers, schools offer their only network of support. Often, their parents are involved in violent relationships, or the children don't feel comfortable talking to them.

"There is always a line of kids waiting to talk to me after I give a presentation on domestic violence," said Patty Arambarri, community outreach coordinator for the Women's Walk In Resource Center, a battered women's counseling center and shelter in Fullerton. "It's real scary. Schools have got to deal with these issues."

Indeed, Harrigan is teacher, mentor, friend and counselor to her students. Usually she focuses her attention on girls like Sandy and Emily (not their real names), who are involved with angry, possessive young men.

Whether they are watching videos that deal with domestic violence or just sitting around discussing the positive and negative aspects of their relationships, the students vent their emotions.

"I've been trying to gain his trust for three months," said Sandy, 16, who was dating a 19-year-old. "He is paging me all day long. He checks up on me all the time."

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