I hope I can be forgiven for daydreaming in the middle of a sentence, some days, as I look at my teenagers. I imagine their gummy newborn grins, their first books or songs or games, and their tentative first attempts at ice skating, before being snapped back to reality by the maturity of their negotiating skills, their budding opinions of the world—including their reminders that they are more grownups than children—and the topics and decisions that affect them right now.
I understand in a whole new way where all those clichés of parenting come from. It does seem like just yesterday. They do grow up so fast, in the blink of an eye, before you know it. I’m becoming my mother (and I mean that in the best possible sense, Mom). As a parent, I feel like I had just mastered the art of protecting my children from table corners, staircases and busy streets, only to be faced suddenly with helping them begin to navigate the challenges of romantic relationships, preparing for college and work.
February was Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. Rather than let the month go by and catch it the next time, this year I’ve been more aware that we don’t have any time to lose. We can’t just wish our children into healthy relationships, or hope people treat them well or they grow up to be the kind of people who treat others well. Dating abuse is a growing epidemic, with 1 in 3 students reporting some form of abuse. According to the latest research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 1 in 10 high school students is in an abusive relationship. That’s one too many. At the same time, more than two-thirds of these students never report that abuse to an adult—and more than 80 percent of school counselors feel unprepared to address incidents of abuse. What this tells me, as a parent, a teacher and a union leader, is that we adults need to do a much better job of talking to our children about sex and healthy relationships.
Let’s take all those resources developed in February, and all that attention devoted to dating violence and healthy relationships, and commit to talking about these issues with our children all year long. Because we know they do grow up so fast.
A few weeks ago, Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) introduced the Teach Safe Relationships Act in the Senate to expand comprehensive health education at the middle and high school levels to include “safe relationship behavior” education. At the same time, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) introduced a similar measure in the House of Representatives as an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Both efforts would require schools that offer health education to add age-appropriate lessons focused on prevention and intervention strategies for domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking and sex trafficking. This would include education on consent as well as on emotional health and well-being in relationships. In addition, schools would be required to ensure that all lessons are culturally and linguistically appropriate.
Visual data helps make the case to policy makers that program changes are necessary. The following maps illustrate the rates of rape and assault at the county level and can be used to compare and contrast resources and approaches between counties.
This legislation builds on work done through the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act to develop and implement prevention and intervention policies on teen dating abuse in middle and high schools.
As a parent, I know that it is vitally important to model safe relationships and to talk with my kids about how to develop safe, healthy relationships. And as a teacher, I also know that it is vitally important for all children to learn these lessons at school. I’m confident parents and teachers can do this work best together. That’s why I’m proud that the AFT is partnering with UltraViolet to spread the word about the Teach Safe Relationships Act.
Congress has a chance to help reduce violence and sexual assault by implementing these commonsense lessons into classes our kids are already taking. Together, we have the opportunity to improve the health and safety of a whole generation of young people. I hope you will join me in asking your senators and representatives to support this effort. While teenagers’ toddler years may seem like just yesterday, they need us to advocate for them and talk to them today—because they do grow up so fast.
Mary Cathryn Ricker is the executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers.