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October 1, 1997

Confronting Dating Violence

A high school's presentation of "The Yellow Dress" is a model for problem solving and public discourse about a sensitive issue.
If schools are to be safe havens for children, can they limit themselves to academic issues, or must they address more than the intellect? Brattleboro Union High School recently answered this pivotal question through The Yellow Dress, a powerful one-woman play about a teenage victim of dating violence. Bringing this performance to our school challenged all who participated to unite school and community, intellect and heart.

Students and Dating Violence

In the past decade, dating violence has become an important issue for schools nationwide. A study showed that in 714 cases of reported rape, 61 percent of the women were younger than 18, and 22 percent were between the ages of 18 and 24 (National Victim Center 1992). Another study showed that more than half of college rape victims were attacked by their dates. Often rape victims know their attackers, but almost as often they tell no one of their victimization (Koss, Woodruff, and Koss 1990).
In rural Vermont, our high school of 1,000 students was not immune to such violence. Several members of the Student Review Team had noticed an increase in abusive student relationships. This team of counselors, administrators, and community representatives from mental and physical health facilities meets weekly to discuss at-risk students. One of the counselors had seen The Yellow Dress at a national conference on adolescence and believed its message was too powerful for the school to ignore the opportunity to present it locally.
Several early studies (Roscoe and Callahan 1985, Rosenbaum and O'Leary 1981) suggest that education is most effective in changing abusive behavior when it emphasizes that violence is not a normal or necessary part of interpersonal relationships. Effective approaches focus on teaching anger control, assertiveness, and responsible communication. School provides an ideal setting for this type of education because a large number of young people can be reached at one time. Further, students perceive school as a more socially acceptable venue for counseling services than either mental health centers or shelters for battered women.

Laying the Groundwork

Deana's Fund in Waltham, Massachusetts, sponsors The Yellow Dress, and the play committee first contacted this group for information about bringing a performance to Brattleboro. At the same time, the committee began to involve important constituencies in the project: the local Women's Crisis Center, Youth Services, the Student Assistance Program coordinator, the head of the counseling department, two experienced school counselors, and a building administrator.
At one crucial point, the football coach joined the committee. This linked athletic leaders to the program and connected it to the Athletic Boosters. Our school has long focused on abolishing athletic stereotypes, including that of the "violent athlete." This was an opportunity to use the influence of student athletes to focus on dating violence.

More Than an Add-On

Unless we committed to making The Yellow Dress part of the curriculum, Deana's Fund would not bring the production to our site. Teachers were required to commit time in their classes before and after the play to discuss the issues. Deana's Fund also stipulated that immediately after the play, we divide the audience into small groups of about 10 students to give them a chance to process what they had seen. In addition, the Fund limited the audience to 350 students.
The high school has a community service requirement for graduation, so students are familiar with learning about relationships and caring for others. The play committee targeted specific courses for potential participants: health, gender issues, sociology, law, medical and human services, and contemporary issues. Several school counseling groups also signed up to attend the performance.
Because the time commitment was extensive—one week of preparation and one week of postproduction discussions—only those teachers who were fully invested in the program chose to participate. To be allowed to view the play, students had to participate in both pre- and postplay activities. Deana's Fund supplied excellent curricular materials, which were easily integrated with teachers' own resources. Participating teachers met in an informal session to discuss the materials and exchange ideas about using them in the classroom.

Organizational Challenges

The play posed several organizational challenges. First, we had to fund the performance fee. Donations came from local businesses and agencies: the Brattleboro Boosters Club, the high school itself, a Safe and Drug Free Schools grant, and Access Vermont. We garnered additional support when the local newspaper ran a story about the play, and the high school Computer Graphics Class produced posters for publicity.
We also needed facilitators for the small group discussions immediately following the performance. By the time of the performance, we had more than 20 social workers, psychologists, therapists, and teachers to facilitate the discussions—all donating their time. We probably would have had difficulty fielding such a group of volunteers five years ago, but we have worked to reach out to the community. The many speaking engagements, newspaper articles, mailings, school/community projects, and evening meetings have paid off in a greater connectedness between the school and community. In fact, every student attending the play received a list of community resources, contact persons, and phone numbers in case they needed help with an abusive relationship.
We wanted to reach out to parents as well. One of the counselors on the committee, who was involved with The Yellow Dress at another school, organized an event for parents the night before the performance, with assistance from the local Women's Crisis Center. We advertised the evening through the newspaper, on the radio, and with fliers. Attendees watched a video; received an information packet; and discussed healthy relationships, the law, and teenagers. A local police representative discussed dating violence, and a representative from Youth Services presented information and answered questions.

Performance Day

After all the weeks of preparation, the day finally arrived. Students filled the auditorium, well prepared for the themes of the dramatic monologue they were about to see. No student was forced to be there, and each had a signed permission slip to take part in learning about the sensitive issues. We wanted to be clear and open, letting parents decide whether this topic was appropriate for school or one they would rather deal with only at home. Not a single person in the community complained, despite the controversial and sensitive nature of the program.
During the performance, the auditorium was absolutely silent. The Yellow Dress presents a 17-year-old's seemingly innocent choice between two dresses for her prom: one blue and one yellow. Throughout the play, the young woman reflects on her relationship with her boyfriend. Although the monologue hints at the story's tragic truth, few are prepared for the fact that the teenager is dead. She has been missing for two days and is lying in a shallow ditch. Her parents are searching for her, and she wishes she could comfort them. But her boyfriend banged her head against the dashboard of his car, killing her because she wanted to break up with him. Her yellow dress is covered with blood.

Student Reaction

We placed facilitator names on chairs throughout the audience so groups could form easily after the play. After the production ended, students quickly joined these groups in the auditorium and other places. For 45 minutes after the play, we heard the low hum of conversation: no laughter, no off-task behavior. Deana's Fund had provided an excellent list of discussion topics for facilitators. Both students and adults were fully engaged in discussing the play and its issues.
In the days following the performance, classes continued to discuss dating violence. Student responses were rich and insightful. One boy observed: I felt ashamed to be a male watching the performance. I had never realized how serious such violence could be despite such publicized cases as the O. J. Simpson trial and other tabloid releases.
A young woman reflected, "I had always believed that a person could easily extricate herself from a negative and harmful relationship, but from this production I learned that this was not the case." Another student commented, "I have seen negative behaviors in my friends' relationships, but I never viewed them as potentially harmful."
Participating teachers also had much to say about the experience. For example, one teacher observed: Everyone in my group felt an increased awareness of the depth and breadth that negative human interactions could take, and they felt strongly responsible, not only for themselves, but also for their friends and relatives.

Additional Follow-Up

Committee members believed the project deserved a final meeting to help guide future performances of The Yellow Dress or other such programs at Brattleboro Union High School. We brainstormed aspects of the event we would have improved upon, such as offering an opt-out permission slip instead of requiring permission, finding better discussion space, inviting only facilitators who work with teens, and asking participating teachers to recruit others to the project. We also developed a survey so teachers could comment on and critique the project. Finally, we sent thank-you notes to all involved.
Our school chooses to confront social issues as community problems, not simply as school problems. We are not afraid to face tough topics with our students, modeling problem solving and community discourse around a serious issue. In that respect, The Yellow Dress was only one example of our larger purpose.
Our district aims for empowerment for every individual, group, and organization. The committee that brought The Yellow Dress to the high school was empowered to develop the project. By connecting with the community, the high school has empowered itself so that it can call on a large group of volunteers to make such a day possible. Most important, by helping students to confront the issues of dating violence—and by modeling collaborative problem solving for and with them—we began the process of empowering them to take control of their own lives.
References

Koss, Woodruff, and Koss. (August 1990). "Statistics On Sexual Violence Against Women." (http://www.honors.indiana.edu/~w131/statistics.html)

National Victim Center. (April 23, 1992). "National Victim Center Statistics." (http://pubweb.ucdavis.edu/Documents/RPEP/nvcstats.htm).

Roscoe, B., and J.E. Callahan. (1985). "Adolescents' Self-Report of Violence in Families and Dating Relations." Adolescence 10, 79: 545-553.

Rosenbaum, A., and K.D. O'Leary. (1981). "Children: The Unintended Victims of Marital Violence." American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 51, 4: 692-699.

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