Rhode Island schools are beginning a unique commitment to teaching students about the widespread dangers of dating violence. The effort depends on help from advocacy groups whose education programs are being hit by state budget cuts.

Ann Burke

(WOMENSENEWS)–Public schools in Rhode Island are implementing the nation’s first comprehensive required health curriculum to teach students in grades 7-12 about dating violence under a new state law.

The Lindsay Ann Burke Act–named for a 23-year-old Rhode Island woman murdered by an abusive ex-boyfriend three years ago–also mandates training on dating violence for all school staff and requires that schools develop a policy for handling instances of dating violence.

Critics point out that the law provides no extra funding to schools.

"You can’t pass a law and then not have the resources," says Lucy Rios, prevention director for the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, based in Warwick.

Rios says the new law will give domestic violence agencies access to schools that had previously closed their doors to dating violence educators.

But she says many of the coalition’s six member agencies may struggle to help the schools implement the new curriculum because recent state budget cuts have forced many to reduce education programs. Some agencies suddenly lost more than two-thirds of their state funding and are focusing their priorities on such crisis services as hotlines and shelters.

However, Ann Burke, the mother of Lindsay Ann Burke, who helped push the law through the state legislature, says it may help to fill this gap by mandating education to all middle and high school students. Most schools, she says, will use existing health faculty to teach about dating violence and incorporate it into their programs.

Burke, a health teacher at Curtis Corner Middle School in South Kingstown, R.I., says she personally provides trainings to teachers for free.

Model Program Available

Kate Reilly, coordinator of the initiative against dating violence for the Rhode Island Department of Education, says she has put together a model policy for schools to use when dealing with dating violence among students, using bits and pieces from policies in Massachusetts, Texas and California along with the bullying policy that Rhode Island already requires.

When it comes to the educational requirement, Reilly says schools may vary in how extensively they implement the new material, since educators only have to state that they are teaching dating violence education in order to comply with the law. Under that requirement, health teachers might spend as little as one class a year on the topic.

While other states, such as Texas, require some education and policies about dating violence, Rhode Island is the only state to pass such a comprehensive law.

In June Attorney General Patrick Lynch took the measure to the national level. With the support of Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, Lynch, current president of the National Association of Attorneys General, secured the unanimous passage of a resolution by the group to support dating violence education in all states.

In a recent interview Lynch told Women’s eNews that he has met many families grieving the murder of a loved one. Most prefer to mourn privately. But Burke was different.

"I knew . . . that she had that special strength and would be able to assist me in making a difference in trying to push back against the scourge of domestic violence," says Lynch.

State Senator Beatrice A. Lanzi, who sponsored the bill at the urging of Lynch and Burke, said she was startled when she heard how many teens have been exposed to dating violence.

Sixty-two percent of 11- to 14-year-olds who had been in a relationship knew friends who had been verbally abused by a boyfriend or girlfriend, according to a 2008 study by Liz Claiborne Inc., the clothing company that has sponsored the dating violence prevention programs such as the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline and the "Love Is Not Abuse" curriculum, used voluntarily by educators across the country. Twenty percent of 13- to 14-year-olds in relationships said they knew friends and peers who had been kicked, hit, slapped or punched by a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Law Begins With a Murder

Burke’s involvement with the safety law began in 2005, when her daughter Lindsay Ann was murdered.

At that point, Burke said in a recent interview with Women’s eNews, she was left with two options.

"Do you try to do something about it or do you just fade away and just let it go?" Burke, now 57, said she asked herself. "I just ethically couldn’t just fade away and let it go. I had to do something about it."

By working together with Attorney General Lynch, who had sat with the Burke family in court and secured a life sentence for Lindsay’s murderer, Burke began a campaign that led to the law passed last year requiring dating violence education in public schools.

Now she’s helping to implement the law along with fellow health teacher Karen Murphy. Burke says they have so far trained 120 teachers from 71 schools through the Lindsay Ann Burke Memorial Fund, a nonprofit that Burke runs in Lindsay’s honor. Burke also runs workshops for other school staff.

Teachers who are not already familiar with the topic can take a free workshop through Burke’s nonprofit, which is funded by private donors and a grant from the Warwick-based Champlin Foundation, and does not receive state funding.

In addition to speaking about her own personal experiences, Burke provides teachers with DVDs and lesson plans from a curriculum called "Safe Dates," written by Dr. Vangie Foshee, and Liz Claiborne’s "Love Is Not Abuse" curriculum. Both curricula discuss warning signs, the dynamics of dating violence and information on how friends and loved ones can help.

She Didn’t Know What to Call It

Burke said that long before her daughter was murdered she knew there was something wrong with her relationship, but she didn’t know what to call it.

Without that knowledge, she felt powerless to help. The counselors she talked to about her daughter’s behavioral changes told her she was being overprotective.

Lindsay’s boyfriend would call and constantly send instant messages, Burke says, as if he was "checking up on her."

At the party her family held after Lindsay graduated from Rhode Island College in 2004, Lindsay and her boyfriend stood in the middle of the party, holding hands, seemingly oblivious to the rest of the guests.

"I’ve never seen anything like this before," Burke remembers thinking. "All I knew was, it wasn’t normal."

In the months following her daughter’s murder, Burke searched the Internet and local libraries, looking for answers. What she found shocked her. Dating violence, especially among young teens, is far more prevalent than many parents think.

As a health teacher, she believed that education was the best way to attack the problem. Lindsay herself had been an education major, and Burke’s husband, son and daughter-in-law are all teachers.

Ann Burke has a busy schedule of running workshops, making contacts with advocates in other states and teaching her middle school health classes. But every now and then the depression and pain comes back and she wonders if she can keep doing it.

"But then something always happens," Burke says. "I get angry again."

These feelings are renewed each week when Burke visits her daughter’s grave. "The abusers would love for us to all quit," says Burke. "I’m not going to do that."

Amy Littlefield is a student at Brown University and a freelance reporter.

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For more information:

National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline

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