The Williamsburg High School of Art and Design (WHSAD) is about to become the first school in the city to offer a pilot education program to address and prevent dating abuse among teenagers.
The Jessica Tush Peer Education Program is named for Staten Island resident Jessica Tush who in 2008, at the age of 19, was abducted and murdered by her ex-boyfriend, with whom she had recently broken up. Since her death, her mother Dina Tush has tirelessly worked to encourage city and statewide elected officials to create legislation to combat teen dating violence, but to no avail.
An education program was a natural grassroots alternative. Tush worked with Dana Rachlin, in her role as a member of the New York State Women Inc, Richmond County Chapter, and together they assembled the right parties to make the education program a reality.
Soon after beginning their collaboration, Tush and Rachlin were brainstorming with Assemblyman Joe Lentol, WHSAD, Day One, a New York City based organization that tackles teen dating violence and Kathleen Cashin, a member of the Board of Regents in the New York State Education Department. On April 2 this year, the sixth anniversary of Jessica’s death, the education program came to life.
“I’m very happy that this is finally going somewhere,” said Dina Tush. “We have to start small, and it is really wonderful that this is happening. You don’t know who you are saving until it happens.”
The program will be run by Day One in partnership with WHSAD and New York State Women Inc, Richmond County Chapter. It will recruit 12 students, aged 14 to 18, from WHSAD and the Greenpoint Youth Court to participate in a three-month training program this summer
In addition to studying the problem and learning to identify precursors to teen violence, the students will create an educational film to inform their fellow students about partner violence among teens.
Once complete, the film will be shown to incoming ninth graders as part of the curriculum with the lesson on dating violence being split into three periods at the beginning of the school year. Teachers, counselors and administrators at the school will be taught about the program and how to integrate it into the regular curriculum.
“The best part about this program is that it will linked to the 9th grade reading curriculum,” said Dana Rachlin. “We’re using materials that already exist and that are based on the common core standards.”
The students trained in the program over the summer will continue to be youth ambassadors for the program for the rest of their time at the school, and facilitate continued discussions about the subject amongst their peers.
While the program will be a challenge for the school and an experiment in unchartered territory, its principal is looking forward to get started.
“Dating abuse, either emotional or physical, is an example as to how too many of our teens violate the simple rules of the civil society,” said Gill Cornell, the principal at WHSAD. “Without respect for the rights and personal boundaries of others, apathy begins to develop and violence becomes acceptable. The resulting apathy and violence, both of which are impediments to the civil society, can only be prevented if children are educated to respect the boundaries and rights of others.”
About 9 percent of high school students reported being slapped, hit, or physically hurt in an intentional manner by a boyfriend or a girlfriend, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey.
Organizers behind the program are hoping that a success at WHSAD will mean a chance for the program to be adopted in schools across the city, and eventually at a national level.
“There is no question that this type of program can be useful among our teenage population to prevent teenage dating violence,” said Lentol.