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HomeNewsLocal newsStraight Talk on Teen Dating Violence at Friday Forum on St. John

Straight Talk on Teen Dating Violence at Friday Forum on St. John

Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Council Executive Director Jacqueline Heyliger and her group hosted the forum on teen dating violence. The event was held Friday in Cruz Bay at the St. John Legislature. (Submitted Photo)

While the annual celebration of Valentine’s Day in February may evoke feelings of romance for some, advocates opposing violence in personal relationships put their spotlight on the young. Those advocates chose instead to sponsor a frank discussion with the youth on the topic of teen dating.

The 2023 theme for Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month is “Expect Respect.” About 30 intermediate- and high-school-aged students living on St. John assembled at the Legislature in Cruz Bay to hear presentations from social workers and members of law enforcement.

Students sat in groups with teachers serving as escorts. Jacqueline Heyliger from the Virgin Islands Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Council traveled from St. Croix to bring greetings and introduce the topic. DVSAC sponsored Friday’s forum.

“Statistics show that 40 percent of teens say they have witnessed dating abuse. Sixty percent of teens know someone who has been a victim of teen dating violence or sexual assault. And 46 percent — statistics say — of those who have known about dating abuse did not intervene,” the speaker said.

Heyliger explained that groups like DVSAC across the United States hold forums like the one they were attending in the month of February to inform young people about situations they may come across in their daily lives.

The one message the speaker said she wanted students to take away from Friday’s forum is that if they ever fall victim to teen dating violence or sexual assault, “it is not your fault, regardless of the circumstances.”

Annette Smalls from the Family Resource Center guided the audience through the terms used to describe teen dating violence, sexual violence, and harassment.

“Teen dating violence impacts long-term health,” Smalls said. “You guys have a lot to deal with in this life. You have your schoolwork. You have responsibilities outside of school. Having to deal with these things causes a lot of stress and it could cause health problems. It could cause your grades to drop in school,” Smalls said.

Several speakers followed, including Dr. Shakima Plunkett, a former school counselor now serving as a mental health expert. She spoke to them about growing up and changes taking place in their bodies, and specifically, their brains.

“At this point in your life, your brain is vulnerable, so it’s important to remember that the areas of your brain responsible for self-control, for judgment, for emotions, they are still developing in your teen years. These areas are associated with poor decision-making and emotional outbursts,” Plunkett said.

She quickly added that while poor behaviors linked to ongoing brain development are understandable, they should not be used to excuse actions that cause harm.

Former Julius E. Sprauve School teacher Carla Sewer used storytelling to engage the group, reading from a picture book called “You Matter.”

Virgin Islands Police Department Victim Advocate Desiree Ritter Lambertis spoke bluntly about social pressures that make teens doubt themselves, pressures that can also allow others to manipulate their feelings of self-worth.

“Men, respect these young ladies. You have mothers. You have sisters. You have nieces. Respect them. Treat them the way you want somebody to treat your mother,” Lambertis said.

‘Young women, respect yourselves. When you look at your body image, I want you to think, I am good with me; I don’t need nobody to fix me,” Lambertis said.

The victim advocate also warned the students to guard their behavior during the upcoming Carnival celebrations.

St. John native and attorney Delia Smith also addressed the forum. Smith now serves as the top federal prosecutor as United States Attorney for the Virgin Islands. As the mother of a ninth grader, she said she might understand the kind of pressures youth are facing today.

“Don’t let anyone ever convince you that doing the right thing is somehow not cool,” Smith said. If any of those students attending the Friday forum on teen dating see signs of that kind of trouble in their lives or those of their friends, she urged them to say something.

Students attending the forum included teens attending Sprauve School, the Ivanna Eudora Kean High School, and St. John Gifft Hill School.

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