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L.A. Unified to consider expanding anti-dating violence programs

The proposal comes in the wake of a fatal stabbing in which a high school girl was allegedly attacked by her ex-boyfriend. If approved, it would teach students to recognize when a relationship is becoming abusive.

October 11, 2011|By Rick Rojas, Los Angeles Times
  • A photo of Cindi Santana, who was fatally stabbed, in a memorial at South East High School in South Gate last week
A photo of Cindi Santana, who was fatally stabbed, in a memorial at South… (Christina House / For The…)

On the heels of a fatal stabbing last month in which a high school girl was allegedly attacked by her ex-boyfriend, the Los Angeles Board of Education is expected to consider a proposal Tuesday that will take on teen dating violence by teaching students to recognize when a relationship is becoming abusive.

Board member Steve Zimmer, who called for the board action, said the Sept. 30 incident at South East High School "punctuates the urgency" for expanding anti-dating violence programs districtwide. Zimmer's proposal has been in the works for months, he said.

Abraham Lopez, 18, remains in custody — his bail set at nearly $1.3 million — in the killing of his ex-girlfriend, Cindi Santana, 17, during a lunchtime attack. Lopez also is accused of stabbing a dean and another student who attempted to restrain him.

If the proposal is approved, the district would hire a coordinator and train a teacher or staff member on school campuses to help students identify when they may be veering toward physical, emotional or verbal abuse and to raise awareness of these issues.

Zimmer said the program could cost about $2 million.

Patricia Giggans, executive director of Peace Over Violence, the nonprofit group that already has programs in some district schools and worked closely with Zimmer on the resolution, said the anti-dating violence program could offer students a knowledgeable adult to turn to if problems arise.

She said dating violence is becoming increasingly widespread. She cited government research that her group assembled: About one in three adolescent girls in the U.S. has been physically, emotionally or verbally abused by a dating partner, and one in 10 high school students has been hit, slapped or physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend. Giggans said teaching young people early the warning signs of an abusive relationship — and the tools to develop safe ones — will help set the course for healthy relationships in the future.

Dating problems, she said, have become more serious, with the types of abuse seen in much older couples becoming more common among high school students.

Giggans said that when she began working to prevent dating violence about 15 years ago, she took her message of building healthy relationships to a high school, believing that the students could apply the advice in college and beyond.

After she finished the talk, however, a few of the young women approached her. One told her that her boyfriend had forced her to wear his varsity jacket. When she refused, he had a flash of rage. Is that abuse, she asked?

And another: When the girl didn't call her boyfriend at 7 p.m., he rushed to her house and pounded on the door as her family ate dinner, upsetting her mother. How about that?

Giggans was stunned; she was too late.

That experience prompted Peace Over Violence to begin its education programs much earlier — in seventh grade.

On a recent morning, Trina Greene, manager of Peace Over Violence's Start Strong program, faced a class at Berendo Middle School in Pico-Union and dived into matters of love and control.

She took students through an exercise in which they had to decide whether to leave a relationship. Under one scenario, a girl pinched a boy for looking at another girl. The students said they would end the relationship. But when she bought him a gold chain for his birthday, a number of them wavered, saying they might stay.

Jessica Contreras, a recent West Adams Preparatory High School graduate, said programs like these will make a difference. She said she wished she had learned more about healthy relationships before she ended up in an abusive one.

She was 14, her then-boyfriend was 18. He started pulling her away from her family and friends. He put her down, telling her she was worthless. "One day," she said, "he almost hit me. And that kind of scared me, but I thought it was my fault."

When she returned to school one day and saw him with another girl, she told him off, and he slapped her. The relationship ended. But for almost a year afterward, she said, "I couldn't smile, I couldn't do anything…. I didn't know what to think or how to feel."

Contreras, now 18, is raising her 1-year-old son from another relationship. With counseling and help from programs like Peace Over Violence, she said, she knows how to define boundaries in a relationship and stand up for herself.

rick.rojas@latimes.com

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