Part two of a two-part series
At the end of January, an ad hoc committee for the Pennsylvania State Board of Education ruled on whether or not educating students about dating violence should be mandatory in middle schools and high schools.
Despite the growing concern over dating violence, the committee decided against a mandatory dating violence curriculum and, instead, gave districts the option to adopt an education policy that fits into their existing curriculum.
As a result of that ruling, Pennsylvania joined eight other states which encourage but do not mandate school districts to adopt education about dating violence or healthy relationship training.
And for parents of the victims of dating violence, like Julianne Siller, an endorsement by the state board fell short of what they think needs to be done.
Siller, 17, was found dead in the woods of Palmer Park in Skippack last May. Her alleged killer, Tristan Stahley, also 17, was charged with first- and third-degree murder, court documents said.
According to her family, Siller and Stahley were just friends, but the course of their relationship nevertheless turned to violence. A better understanding through education might have helped prevent that.
“(Teenagers) think they know how to handle situations but it is important to let them know there are resources out there,” said Julianne’s mother, Jennifer Siller.
Friends of Julianne and the Siller family have started campaigning schools and local legislators for a change to include healthy relationships courses in high school curriculums.
“It bothers me that when Julianne Siller was murdered, (the board was) considering this and they still came out against it,” said Pauline McGibbon.
McGibbon is an advocate with the Montgomery County Women’s Center and a friend of the Sillers. Her daughter was friends with Julianne so McGibbon said this fight is personal for her.
She said the model policy reviewed by the board was designed by the family of another dating violence victim.
Education standards stress awareness
Demi Brae Cuccia only spent one day as a 16-year-old when she was murdered by her former boyfriend in a township outside of Pittsburgh in August of 2007.
Cuccia, according to an article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, died of multiple stab wounds. John Mullarkey Jr. was found guilty of first-degree murder in 2009. In Pennsylvania that conviction carries a mandatory life sentence with no possibility of parole.
A bill supported by Cuccia’s family that would have made dating violence education and awareness mandatory in schools passed the state House of Representatives. When it failed in the state Senate, parts of the bill – including the model policy recently used in the ad hoc committee hearing – were added to Act 104 of 2010.
“The board said schools can, should (and) could adopt the model policy, but nothing specific,” McGibbon said. “Relationship violence is a form of bullying…And yet, bullying education is mandatory; sexual aggression awareness training is mandatory, but dating violence isn’t and that doesn’t make sense because they are all part of the same thing.”
The state board did construct a set of standards to help guide schools toward curriculums that would focus on aspects of self-awareness, maintaining relationships, and decision making in 2012.
However, the Standards for Student Interpersonal Skills are “not a curriculum but are used as a foundation for creating a curriculum that is specific to each district’s student population.”
The standards address ideas like analyzing impacts of a variety of personal traits on relationships, healthy coping skills during adversity, and engaging in creating an environment that encourages healthy relationships.
But the glossary that accompanies the standards does not have definitions for dating violence, domestic violence, or healthy relationships. But it does define conflict resolution, negative behavior, self-awareness, and support.
Why an option instead of mandate?
With the discussion about dating violence, bullying, and teenage suicide playing a central role in student health and wellness, why would the state board elect to make awareness and education an option instead of a mandate?
State Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-19th Dist, said the reason is because Pennsylvania has a history of not mandating curriculums.
“Historically, the state Board of Education does not mandate curriculum. Instead it encourages schools to adopt policies,” he said. “I would have no problem with the state mandating this type of curriculum but I understand the arguments on both sides.”
Dinniman sits on the Senate education committee but did not serve on the ad hoc committee that examined the benefits and detriments of mandatory dating violence education.
He said with more than 500 school districts in the state, mandating overarching curriculums becomes difficult when budgets and resource allocations are different from district to district.
“This type of education is crucial and important,” Dinniman said. “I think a vast majority of school districts will act upon this recommendation.”
McGibbon and Lisa Poelck, another friend of the Sillers and a spokesperson for the family, spoke with state Sen. Bob Mensch, R-24th, and state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-12th, who agree with Dinniman about the importance of having dating violence education and healthy relationships training in schools.
“This is a public safety issue,” Greenleaf said. “There are too many victims.”
Commitment needed from schools
During the review process, the ad hoc committee said a potential added financial burden on schools would be one reason not to mandate the policy.
“The costs associated with a mandate could also negatively impact existing programs and services as their funds could be redirected to support the teen dating violence prevention initiative,” the ad hoc committee offered in its ruling.
Along with the financial argument, the committee said it would take extra expertise and training to provide dating violence education to students.
A professor, who was not named by the committee but prepares teachers and future counselors for work, said, “I find it disturbing to ask teachers to infuse in their curriculum a topic that seems a bit distant from their curriculum – school counselors can help do this.”
But Greenleaf disagrees with both sets of reasoning, saying this training is easily incorporated into the existing bullying and health curriculum designed by the Office of Safe Schools.
“I do not believe this is a financial burden on schools,” he said. “And even if it was, this is a life or death situation.”
McGibbon sees schools as the perfect place for a discussion about dating violence and healthy relationship training because school is where students spend most of their time.
“I think it is such a good arena to have a discussion - next to parents,” she said. In her experience as an advocate, McGibbon said she sees students looking to teachers for guidance.
Although it is frustrating for advocates of healthy relationships training to see the state board stop short of a mandate, the effort could have been quashed altogether.
Public safety at stake
There are currently 15 states that do not have laws which specifically provide for a school response to teen dating violence, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. On the other end of the spectrum, there are also 15 states that do make dating violence education mandatory in schools.
Greenleaf’s point about dating violence being an issue of public safety was also raised by the committee.
“Perhaps the greatest benefit of dating violence education is its potential to prevent future incidents of such violence,” the committee said in its explanation.
The committee also said this type of training could help empower students, elevate the importance of the issue and help current victims of dating violence; all things that McGibbon and supporters of healthy relationships training already know.
“There are other people we can help educate, and protect,” she said. “We just need to work together on this one.”
But like Dinniman predicted, an endorsement may be all it takes for administrators and advocates to start working together to get this curriculum into schools.
“Obviously dating violence is more prevalent than we once experienced,” said David Goodin, superintendent for the Spring-Ford Area School District. “It can be added into the health and wellness curriculum already in place.”
Goodin said this type of education would be especially beneficial at the high school level. He said the death of Julianne Siller, who was two weeks away from graduation at Spring-Ford High School, only highlights the need for training and discussion.
Although he thinks this training is important, Goodin did not say when it would become part of the curriculum.
Kathryn Soeder, the assistant superintendent for the Owen J. Roberts School District, said the district already partners with outside agencies to help address health and wellness issues.
“We have school assemblies and other programs in place that offer guidance,” Soeder said. “Right now, starting in fourth grade, we address bullying, harassment, and violence in schools.”
Soeder said several of the initiatives in the dating violence model policy overlap with existing education initiatives. But, Soeder said, the ruling and the model policy will be reviewed when the district’s legislative and policy committee meets on March 10.
A call to the Perkiomen Valley School District, where Tristan Stahley was a student, was not returned.
For McGibbon, while having mandatory healthy relationships training in schools is her main goal, she will continue to raise awareness about dating violence, domestic violence and what healthy relationships should look like.
“People think domestic violence and dating violence only happen in poor areas. It happens with everybody. It is a nondiscriminatory phenomenon,” she said.” It affects every color, race, religion, and community.”