February is the month of love. It is easy to get swept up in the wave of chocolate, gifts and affection. However, it is important to address both kinds of love: the good and the bad.
That’s why on Feb. 12, students from various schools across Erie County came together at the Buffalo History Museum during Respect Week for a Teen Dating Violence Awareness Summit.
Respect Week has been nationally dedicated to focus on awareness of teen dating violence, and the discussion of both healthy and abusive relationships.
The day started with Karen King, executive director for the Erie County Commission on the Status of Women, addressing a room full of diverse students on the importance of recognizing red flags in a relationship and standing up for yourself.
She then introduced the summit’s guest speaker, a survivor of domestic violence who had silently lived in a toxic relationship for years before her boyfriend almost took her life.
As a high school student, she said, she never thought that she would experience domestic violence. However, the unfortunate reality is that 1 in 3 high schoolers will be in an unhealthy relationship and may not even realize it.
Dating abuse can impact anyone, no matter what their age, gender or sexual orientation is. That is why the Healthy Relationships Teen Dating Violence Awareness Summit put together the daylong program to educate students on what resources are available to them and how to recognize red flags.
At the start of the summit, all the participants received a folder that contained a sheet on relationship rights, as well as charts that described elements of both healthy and unhealthy relationships.
They then took a healthy relationships quiz, which identified several red flags, ranging from constant texting or calling to threatening to harm themselves or others.
After that, the participants discussed how there is more than one type of abuse. Abuse can come in many forms, not just physical and sexual. There is also financial, digital, verbal and emotional abuse. An example of verbal abuse would be a partner being overly critical or telling their significant other that they are lucky that they love them because no one else would. Remarks like those can damage self-esteem and can trap you in an abusive cycle.
Moreover, anyone can empower themselves by recognizing the signs of an unhealthy relationship and taking steps to break the cycle.
The Family Justice Center is a local resource dedicated to educating the public on domestic violence and providing a safe space for victims. Anyone can call the FJC hotline, go to its website or visit one of its several locations to speak with a counselor. The doors are open to people of all ages and genders.
"Students make the best advocates for each other," King said. "By investing time and energy into these resources to address these issues, they become ambassadors for this cause. Not only will they learn how to deal with these complex issues, this knowledge gives you power to help others and keep the conversation going."
After lunch, the participants broke into small groups to share ways in which they had witnessed activism in their lives. They brainstormed ways to bring their new knowledge back to their schools.
Students from Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology, for example, plan to do an art display addressing signs of unhealthy relationships.
Sweet Home High School students hope to start a Snapchat story on teen dating, and Williamsville South High School students plan to invite male and female guest speakers on domestic violence. Every school came up with its own ideas on how to keep this important conversation about dating violence going.
"We all face our own adversity and it’s important to take at look at who we surround ourselves with," said Thomas Rivera, a senior at Sweet Home. "The more knowledge you have, they faster you can recognize the red flags."
Kelsey Dux is a senior at Amherst High School.