Teaching students about domestic violence

One in four adult women will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime. One in 10 female high school students will report violence in a dating relationship. By the age of 20, one-third of young women will experience physical violence or emotional abuse in a dating relationship. And despite a myth to the contrary, many of these women are Jewish.

“Domestic violence does happen in the Jewish community, and to the same extent as in the rest of the population,” said Carly Cooper, a social worker and president here of the Jewish Council Against Family Violence.


Hearing this, some members of the audience shifted uneasily in their seats, but all continued to listen intently, and learn. Cooper spoke Friday at a program for about 35 students in fifth through eighth grade at Solomon Schechter Day School, 348 South Mason Road in Creve Coeur.

Cooper’s 40-minute program at the school was in conjunction with Danielle Serota’s bat mitzvah project. Danielle, the daughter of Drs. Pearl and Harvey Serota of Town and Country, is a seventh grader at the school.

“I chose to do a project on domestic violence because I’ve seen it on television and heard about it on the news,” said Danielle, 13. In addition to asking Cooper to speak, Danielle is collecting personal items for shelters that house abused women. Right now, a collection box is set up at the school, and Danielle hopes to set up a box at her synagogue, Congregation B’nai Amoona.

After Cooper’s talk, seventh grader Abby Miller, 13, commented, “I didn’t know the numbers were so high – you don’t hear about this kind of thing often. This is information that will stick with you, and it’s good to know there are ways to help.”

Early last week before the program, Cooper spoke in a telephone interview about the approach she planned to take. “This is an important topic, but we don’t want to scare the kids,’ said Cooper. “I’ll start by brainstorming with them about what domestic violence is, and then I’ll bring up teen dating violence. I plan to tell them what every teen should know about healthy relationships and self esteem.”

Cooper said she assumed that no one in the young audience would be a victim or an abuser, “but after the talk, we can assume that they will be allies, and they will know how to help their friends and how to be supportive members of the Jewish community.”

At the program on Friday, Cooper emphasized that the victim is never to blame and that there is no shame in asking for help. She provided handouts on behaviors that lead to safe relationships, a list of rights for individuals in relationships, suggestions on how to help friends who may be experiencing dating violence and a list of agencies that work with victims of domestic violence or dating violence.

Cooper also explained how her agency helps by providing an “understanding ear” to Jewish women in relationships with violent or controlling spouses and also by educating counselors at shelters about Jewish customs and dietary laws.

Eli Seigel, an eighth grader, commented after the program that though Cooper’s talk was sometimes “a little awkward” to hear, he believed that it was important for students to hear it. “Especially the information about how teen dating violence comes into play, because soon we’ll all be out there,” said Eli, 13. “This is good information to have.”

Daniel Lev, 11, said that he would not like to be in a situation that involved teen dating violence or domestic violence, but he was grateful that he now will recognize it should he ever see indications of either. The sixth grader said his comfort level was “medium” on hearing about the topic.

After Cooper spoke, Rabbi Allen Selis, head of school, addressed the students. He asked for a show of hands regarding the students’ comfort levels about the program. Noting the full range of responses, Selis reminded students that they were at Solomon Schechter, “where we can talk about stuff in a safe space.” He then announced that his office door would be open for any student who wanted to discuss any aspect of the topic further.

“If we think that schools are only places to cram knowledge into the heads of kids, then we have badly misunderstood what kids need,” Selis said a few days before Cooper’s program. “Talking about these kinds of topics in school serves as a model for how students can act as adults, how they can defend others and protect themselves.”

Selis continued, “It would be a betrayal of our mission not to speak to this issue–so we do. The topic may be scary for middle school students, but I would rather they have a scary conversation now than be in a scary situation later.”