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Education the best hope for stopping family violence

EDITOR'S NOTE -- The classroom may be the safest place for a child living in constant fear of violence at home, but lessons about healthy relationships are often overlooked.

Parents who don't use violence may not want their children to know it exists. Those who do may not want their children to know there is help.

by Vicki Smith

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Across West Virginia, children study skeletons and learn the names of bones. They pore over maps of the muscles that make the human body work.

But only in a handful of classrooms do they discuss what goes on in the head, the heart and the home.

Schools may be the only refuge for children living in violent homes, but an Associated Press review has found that many are passing up the opportunity to teach children the one lesson that could save someone's life: how to recognize an unhealthy relationship.

"When we don't intervene and help children, we pay the price later on," says former Supreme Court Justice Margaret Workman. "Children need education. We give them cooking classes. We teach them to drive. But there's nothing about healthy relationships or parenting.

"We've done the first step and gotten really good laws," she says. "Now we've got to get good programs in place, and that could involve the expenditure of money."

Just as important as the money, however, is the political will to spend it.

Too often, healthy relationship lessons fall victim to overburdened teachers, protective school administrators and communities afraid of discussing anything unpleasant.

Only Marion County has a full-time domestic violence educator working in the public schools, and her salary is paid with a $24,000 grant from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services. About 10 others teach part-time in counties around the state.

"Even my parents, they can't believe I do this," says Debbie Robertson, who gets a new batch of students every nine weeks. "They just don't understand why I talk about these things. But a lot of kids have already seen it, lived it or done it. It's naive to say they shouldn't talk about it."

Marion County Superintendent Tom Long agrees.

"The issues she's covering are real issues that our young people deal with," he says. "They're real-life problems we see from day to day."

Christina Birchfield, director of children's programs at the Women's Resource Center in Beckley, says lawmakers, school boards and parents often have misconceptions about what kind of information domestic violence activists want to offer children.

"There's this idea that domestic violence advocates contribute to the decay of the family by encouraging divorces, etc." she says. "In fact, it's the opposite."

"These are general life skills. It's no soapbox," says Maryjane Kerwood, the state's safe schools coordinator and a supporter of domestic violence education.

"We're not teaching anything that would be questionable. We are teaching what the healthy mode is. We don't focus on the unhealthy," she says. "We focus on generally agreed-upon principles that all people would buy into -- how to get along and respect each other."

Robertson, who has taught more than 3,000 students since she began last year, has yet to hear one parent complain. Neither has Long.

Childhood education has been a priority -- at least on paper -- since 1998, when lawmakers passed a bill requiring domestic violence advocates and the Department of Education to develop an age-appropriate curriculum and train school personnel to teach it.

"All across the country, people are grappling with this," says Sue Julian, team coordinator for the state's Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Even states like Massachusetts, a leader in domestic violence education, are still piloting programs.

The curriculum Robertson teaches was developed for sixth- through eighth-graders and focuses on respect and dating violence.

The coalition hopes to introduce a K-3 program in schools that volunteer next year. At the same time, a team will begin developing a curriculum for the next age group. Eventually, Julian says, there will be a seamless K-12 program.

It's too soon to know whether all 55 counties will use it.

"There is nothing mandated in the schools to teach healthy relationships," Julian says. "One the realities of the education system in West Virginia is the state cannot mandate curriculum. They can suggest, but the counties make the individual choices, so it's very tough to make the schools do this."

"The schools will say, 'We teach conflict resolution.' That's not the same thing," says Judith Ball, director of the Family Crisis Intervention Center in Parkersburg. "Children need education from kindergarten up, starting with 'Hands are not for Hitting,' respect and safety planning."

Ball understands that many parents might object to talk of personal relationships in the classroom.

"If there is no violence in their homes, they don't want their kids to know it's out there," she says. "And if there is violence in their homes, the parents don't want them to know help is out there."

Birchfield says it's particularly difficult to get into schools at the elementary level to talk about family violence.

"We have to knock hard on those doors to get in, and that's where we could see some real differences. ... School administrators don't want to shake things up," she says. "They want to maintain status quo, but the status quo isn't working."

Kerwood, who works in the Office of Student Services and Assessments, says the Department of Education has instructional goals that schools must meet, as well as approved textbook lists.

"Theoretically, they're supposed to be incorporating these issues into the curriculum wherever it fits -- social studies, health or whatever. It's interwoven into other curricula," she says. "Statewide, health teachers say 'family relationships' is in their books and they're teaching it, so it is being taught somewhat."

She agrees, however, that schools need to do more.

"We know our teachers are stretched to the limit and we're asking them to do more all the time, but they're the constant in that child's life," she says.

"Ideally, we would take a team approach and not have the teacher do it all," Kerwood says. County school boards and domestic violence programs could collaborate on not only the proper curriculum but also who should deliver it.

Who should pay for it has yet to be addressed. The 1998 legislation did not identify a funding source.

And that's the problem with Robertson's position: Its funding is tenuous.

"If her grant goes by the wayside, that probably won't be taught next year. The whole program goes," Kerwood says. "If a classroom teacher is involved, that won't happen."

In 1998, Julian says, "what was important was the message. Now, we're really at a place where we need to look at a funding mechanism."

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