One-third of women and one-fourth of men will experience serious relationship violence in their lifetime—and those numbers are based on only the reported cases, according to Bill Mitchell, whose daughter Kristin was murdered by her boyfriend just days after graduating from college in 2005.
Mitchell spoke at a Feb. 12 event, Educators Back on Campus: Being Informed Educators about Dating and Domestic Violence, held in Grace Hall at Cabrini University. The event was created mainly for Cabrini students and alumni in the education, social work, and psychology fields, but included information relevant to any individual.
The prevalence in dating and domestic violence means we all have to be aware of the warning signs, including the impacts of domestic violence on children in the school setting. As mandated reporters, teachers have an important responsibility to recognize signs of trauma in their students and to understand their next steps in handling these instances.
Using real-life examples, the Educators Back on Campus event informed teachers about the effects of domestic violence on children and their families and provided strategies that educators can use in the classroom to best support their students who may be experiencing trauma.
During the event, presenters described how they have used the tragic losses of family members or their own experience with violence to gain insights that save others from harm.
Mitchell, who presented first, spoke about his daughter’s murder, the warning signs that were missed, and how someone can quickly find themselves in an abusive relationship. To this last point, Mitchell shared a story from Kristin’s murderer’s previous girlfriend, who described how her relationship with him became abusive:
“He was a sweet talker. He showed me so much attention that he made me feel like a princess. He showered me with extravagant gifts … it was like I had met the most incredible man. It was good for a few months, but slowly the mental abuse began. He would say things like, ‘You look so ugly in the morning.’ Or, ‘People wonder why I even go out with you.’ I would have my phone on me at all times so he could check in with me … He got in my head and he wore me down to nothing. When I eventually got out of it, I was a shell of who I was.”
“I want to impress upon you that this happens to all kinds of people,” Mitchell said. “Kristin failed to recognize the warning signs that were all around her, actually, of the unhealthy relationship that she was in.”
One example of a warning sign, Mitchell shared, was during Kristin’s last day with her mother, Michele, at the beach in Ocean City, MD. Their time at the beach was interrupted constantly by texts and calls from “the guy who killed her two weeks later,” Mitchell said. “She didn’t know that excessively controlling behavior is a classic warning sign for potential violence in a relationship.”
Mitchell cited the book Crazy Love by Leslie Morgan Steiner to describe the pattern that all abuse tends to follow: It begins with a fairy tale romance before the abuser will slowly and steadily isolate the victim from family, friends, and things he or she likes to do. The abuser will start using threats of violence, and then actual violence, followed by a convincing apology. Then, the pattern repeats itself.
If you see someone suffering from an abusive relationship, “Do something,” says Mitchell.
Examples of how to help a friend or family member in an abusive relationship include talking to a school counselor, calling the hotline (800.799.SAFE), and being a supportive listener. “Listen and believe the person who says they’re being abused,” he said. “Reassure them that they are not alone and it’s not their fault.”
Mitchell’s other important tips include: avoid asking too many questions (because, he says, you want them to come to their own conclusions about their relationship); don’t try to solve the problem for them; don’t interrupt or get angry or aggressive; don’t search out the abuser; and don’t get frustrated if things don’t clear up quickly.
“Education is the best way to prevent this type of thing from happening again, from happening to other people,” Mitchell said.
Following his talk, participants split into two groups for breakout sessions. Mitchell and his wife led one session about their daughter’s case, and the other session was led by Wayne, a sophomore at Methacton High School who, along with his mother, Jada, survived domestic violence caused by his father.
“It was mental, it was physical, emotional, and sexual,” said Wayne. “All of the abuse I’ve faced, I feel like overcoming that was the greatest thing I could have ever done in my life.”
“We are not only survivors, but we are victors, and we may be damaged, but we’re not broken,” Jada said. “You can rebuild yourself,” Wayne added.
Wayne recounted one particular day when he was 8 years old and pushed off his father’s advances, which resulted in his father pinning him and strangling him. “It scared me out of my mind, my life flashed before my eyes,” he said. That day, Wayne says, was the turning point in their lives. His therapist called the police, and his father went to prison.
Because of the serious trauma that children and their families may be exposed to, Wayne emphasized the importance of teachers’ awareness of each student’s background. He shared some of the signs teachers can look out for to identify and help children of trauma: dropping grades, outbursts or bad behavior, and physical scars and injuries. Mainly, he stressed that teachers should be patient, and first try to understand a student’s situation or background before making assumptions.
In 7th grade, Wayne’s grades kept dropping, he was acting out, and he rarely socialized with other students. A teacher kick-started Wayne’s life-changing attitude to become a better student and ultimately be the person who he was, not the person that his trauma made him out to be. By the time he graduated from 8th grade, Wayne had straight As, was on the Honor Roll, and earned the highest achievement award, among others.
“He turned into someone who I can trust,” Wayne said about his teacher. “That’s one thing that all teachers need to learn how to do. They need to learn how to build trust, because if students don’t trust you, they’re not going to open up to you.”
After the breakout sessions, Akea Pearson, founder and operator of Akea’s Heart, Inc., read her book, Mommy Wake Up. The children’s book about an 8-year-old girl who witnessed her mother being abused by her stepfather is intended to serve as a tool for talking about domestic violence in families who may be experiencing it. Pearson lost her mother at a young age to domestic violence, and now works as a domestic violence counselor.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800.799.SAFE (7233).