Jill Gruenberg: Guest opinion | AspenTimes.com

Jill Gruenberg: Guest opinion

Jill Gruenberg
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

Perhaps you have heard the familiar cautionary tale about a town surrounded by dangerous cliffs. The debate among the townspeople was whether it was more prudent to maintain an ambulance down in the valley in order to quickly treat those who might fall from the cliffs, or to build a fence around the top of the cliffs, thus preventing any townspeople from falling.

This simple story clearly captures the essential differences between the treatment and the prevention of social problems. While there will always be a need for the “ambulances” of the world to provide direct service to those in need, as a community there is an equal value in being able to recognize the limitations of simply treating our cultural casualties. Without the addition of thoughtful, prevention-oriented measures, we will forever be playing catch-up, placing Band-Aids on our social ills always a split second behind the actual causation of the injury.

Having worked in the fields of domestic violence and sexual assault for more than 10 years, I have begun to detect a subtle yet powerful shift towards embracing the philosophy of primary prevention among my fellow “ambulance drivers.” Nationally recognized campaigns such as Domestic Violence Awareness Month help to not only bring greater community awareness to these subjects, but they also prompt us to ask ourselves the challenging question, “Are we fulfilling our mission?”

When I reflect on Response’s mission – “to end interpersonal violence by providing support and direct service to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault and to educate the community on related issues” – I am left asking a basic question: “How do we truly work to end interpersonal violence?” Of course there will always be a need and a value for our direct service work, yet we can’t allow the many demands for our front-line advocacy to take us away from stepping back to evaluate and implement our overall strategy.

February, as Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, provides me the opportunity to ponder this issue of prevention. For too long in the field of domestic violence, there has been an image of the “typical survivor,” an image that has not included lesbian women, affluent women, elderly women, men or teenagers. Recently, however, the message that relationship violence can and does happen to anyone, has gained acceptance, and several high-profile cases such as Chris Brown’s assault on his girlfriend Rhianna and the University of Virginia death of Yeardly Love at the hands of her ex-boyfriend in 2010 have served as a catalyst for calls to institute teen-dating violence prevention education programs in high schools and colleges.

Even here in the relatively pristine halls of Aspen High School, assaults have occurred between dating partners resulting in criminal arrests and protection orders.

Fortunately, Aspen High School has been very proactive in embracing violence prevention education through a collaborative partnership with Response, the Aspen Police Department, and the Aspen Counseling Center. Beginning in 2009, this team has created and delivered curriculum to all freshman students throughout the year covering such topics as the influence of media on gender stereotypes, the intersection between gender stereotypes and gender violence, defining healthy relationships, recognizing the red flags of unhealthy relationships, self-esteem, the setting of boundaries, bystander intervention, technology and abuse, and teen-dating violence. In addition programs to address the topics of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and consent have been presented to all Aspen High School juniors and seniors.

This year we have worked to expand our programs to the Basalt High School and the seventh- and eighth-graders of the Aspen Middle School. As our program grows, I envision eventually providing programming to all school-age children of the valley. Simply put, it is never too early to begin the work of learning what makes a relationship healthy, whether it is a friendship with peers or an intimate relationship.

When tackling subjects such as these, there will always be the naysayers: those who believe that these problems don’t exist in our community or that the very mention and exploration of these issues somehow contributes to their prevalence. And while I, as a parent, understand the desire to protect our children from the ills of the world, we cannot ignore that these undercurrents and influences exist.

I believe that the work of effective prevention is twofold. First, we must provide our youth with the awareness and the skills that they need in order to recognize and protect themselves from attitudes and behaviors that are based in inequality, and therefore have the potential to form the basis of an unhealthy and potentially violent relationship. However, just like the ambulance in the valley is only a part of the solution, this approach is only part of the prevention equation. If I teach a child how to avoid a bully or a sexual predator or an abusive partner, it is safe to assume that the perpetrator will simply find someone else to target. What about the perpetrator themselves?

It is time that our anti-violence prevention efforts include the simple yet revolutionary message that encourages all of our students not to be “that friend, that boyfriend, or that bully that engages in violence.” This is the equivalent of the fence around the cliff, the action that stops the devastation before it happens, the pivot upon which all of us as teachers, parents, and community members can contribute to shift the expectations and to create safer communities and schools.

Please join the Violence Prevention Education Team from 5:30-7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 24, in the seminar room of the Aspen High School for an informational presentation on the subject of Teen Dating Violence.

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