Addressing Dating Violence in High School and College
By Eniola Longe
Reporting Texas TV
AUSTIN, Texas — Finnley Willms, president of the Texas Advocacy Project’s Teen Ambassadors of Hope, had no idea teen dating violence was such a common issue until she volunteered.
With a mission to end dating and domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking in the state, Texas Advocacy Project (TAP) provides free legal services to survivors and engages with the public through outreach and education.
Willms joined about 80 others April 9 at the Texas Capitol for one of TAP’s programs, the Teen Ambassadors of Hope, a statewide leadership campaign designed to equip teens to develop healthy relationships to prevent teen dating violence. Founded in 1982, Texas Advocacy Project has worked to ensure all Texans can live abuse-free.
“Becoming a Teen Ambassador of Hope has helped me grow my leadership skills,” Willms said. “I’m able to approach problems that are seemingly really scary, and provide help to people who need it the most.”
Also called intimate relationship violence, intimate partner violence among adolescents and adolescent relationship abuse, one in 11 female and one in 15 male teens said they experienced physical dating violence according to the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One in nine female students and one in 36 male students also said they experienced sexual dating violence . Many of these experiences happen before the age of 18.
Heather Bellino, Chief Executive Officer of the Texas Advocacy Project, said dating violence goes under the radar because most people are in denial that it’s happening to them or in their community.
“Dating violence happens to women and men, it is not about a gender based issue,” Bellino said. “Dating violence is about power and control. It happens across all genders, male, female, cis, non binary, all of it.”
Bellino said the Texas Advocacy Project is paying attention to policy on issues of abuse and continues to share their subject matter expertise.
“We have heard the voices of survivors, we have helped them get to safety, we’ve seen the barriers to accessing our justice system, and the things that are missing in our laws that could help a survivor to get safety,” Bellino said. “We are here to lift the voices of survivors so that the lawmakers and our elected officials can hear what is best for them.”
As a teen ambassador, Willms is involved with outreach and advocacy.
“I have had friends and co-workers who have needed TAP’s resources,” Willms said. “I’ve been able to refer them directly to make sure they get the help that they need.”
Set to celebrate its 50th anniversary in June, Title IX started as a way to prevent gender discrimination in education. It now protects against sexual harrassment, sexual assault, domestic and dating violence, stalking and discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.
Out of 1,415 reports received in the 2020-21 school year by the Title IX office on the University of Texas at Austin’s campus, only 86 were eligible for a formal grievance process according to its 2020-21 executive report on compliance.
“Once an incident is reported to the Title IX Office, our intake specialists reach out, generally within 24 to 48 hours to provide support, resources and accommodations,” said Eliska Padilla, Issues & Communications Manager, Title IX Office.
Voices Against Violence (VAV), a UT Counseling and Mental Health Center program, provides the campus community with resources to practice consent, engage in healthy relationships, and interrupt cycles of interpersonal violence.
“We have touch points with students throughout their time on campus,” said Katy Redd, Associate Director for Prevention, Development and Media Relations for University Health Services. “The first one being the sexual assault prevention modules that students go through before they get to campus.”
VAV also provides trauma responsive counseling and crisis services to students who have experienced interpersonal violence.
As part of its annual campaign in recognition of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the Title IX Office held a series of events to raise awareness about sexual assault, educate students on sexual violence and create spaces to talk about ending interpersonal violence in our campus communities.