Every Friday morning, about 40 students at Liverpool High School give up their academic advisement period—a kind of study hall—to bandy about ideas concerning hot topics like bullying, homophobia and dating violence.
The students are part of the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program, a Vera House initiative that started at Liverpool and Manlius-Pebble Hill this year. It will soon also be coming to Cicero-North Syracuse High School, Nottingham High School and Henninger High School.
MVP is a national program brought to the Central New York area by Vera House and Syracuse University a few years ago. Vera House then reached out to area schools at every opportunity, teaching in health classes or gym classes. However, MVP educator Tiffany Braley said those programs offered limited access to students, as well as limited opportunities to bring about real change.
“This summer, we spent time thinking about, ‘How can we be more effective at what we do?’” Braley said. “We made some proposals to each of the schools and were focusing on fewer schools, but doing more intense work within the school.”
MVP trainers like Braley and partner Raheem Mack give a presentation to the whole school, then, with the aid of staff members—in Liverpool’s case, school social workers Tracy Lunney and Jen Prusinowski—take on students who volunteer to be trained in the core content, offer them that training and work with them throughout the year to train them as peer leaders.
The MVP program, according to Vera House’s web site, is a “leadership training program that motivates young people to play a central role in solving problems that historically have been considered ‘women’s issues’—sexual assault, dating violence, and sexual harassment.” The program helps students stand up to peers who act as abusers without putting them in physical danger and seeks to break through stereotypes about gender roles.
“We’re not only focused on dating violence, but all kinds of bullying,” Lunney said. “We want to teach the kids positive bystander approaches—how to safely intervene in a situation without physically putting themselves at risk.”
But dating is certainly something that the group addresses.
“From at least having initial conversations with the [executive] principal, Mr. [Tony] Davis, a big concern is the dating stuff, what’s happening within their relationships and then, when their relationships end, how do they deal with it,” Braley said.
Davis is right to be concerned about the “dating stuff.” According to the Domestic Violence Resource Center, about one in five female high school students reports being physically or sexually assaulted by a dating partner. Two in five girls between the age of 14 and 17 report knowing someone who has been hit or beaten by a boyfriend, and one in five teens in a serious relationship reports having been hit, slapped, or pushed by a partner. Fourteen percent of teens report their boyfriend or girlfriend threatened to harm them or themselves to avoid a breakup. Many studies indicate that as a dating relationship becomes more serious, the potential for and nature of violent behavior also escalates.
Step up and help
In order to address those terrifying statistics at Liverpool, Davis responded to Vera House’s call for schools to participate in the MVP program last year. Vera House trainers spent a day on site at LHS for a workshop to introduce students to the concept. About 60 kids signed up. Most stuck with the program and have attended weekly meetings, completing core content training to learn more about peer leadership skills, including content training in specialized areas such as gender roles, abuse and homophobia. In order to help students keep up on everything, Braley put together a manual with the help of Jill Snyder and Janet Epstein at Syracuse University’s Advocacy Center, which she will distribute to the students. It contains background information, instructions on proper behavior, core content information and examples of bystander behavior.
Examples covered in core content training ranged from the famed Kitty Genovese case to the recent YouTube video on bullying posted by a young man named Jonah.
“I always like to find things like that, because it’s a really good reminder of why I do this work,” Braley said. “The peer leadership programs that we’re looking to start up in the schools essentially are to reduce the amount of kids that have to experience those kinds of things.”
Braley herself sought employment at Vera House after her best friend was murdered in a domestic violence situation.
“When I think about what happened and the situation that led up to that, all of the things I’m talking about are skills and information I wish I had,” she said. “I wish I knew the signs to look for. I wish I knew the red flags. I wish I had the confidence to step up. I wish I’d had those things. For me, doing this work, that’s what I want to give to [the students] is that confidence and the skills and the information to step up and help somebody.”
Already, the group having the desired effect.
“One of our students stopped kind of a domestic dispute between a girl and a boy in the hallway the other day,” Lunney said. “She was nervous, but she saw this girl and boy fighting in the hallway. It was an empty hallway. I happened to witness it. I was coming from the other direction towards the couple. The boy had his hands on her and he was pushing her towards the locker. The other girl was coming towards them, knew them personally. She knew she couldn’t physically get involved, but she screamed out the boy’s name. And it embarrassed him. Then a teacher came out, and everything stopped. He was like, ‘Oh, my God, what am I doing?’ Then he took off. But that was a way that she wasn’t just a bystander, she was an active bystander, a positive, helpful person where she changed the situation and didn’t physically get herself involved.”
Start the conversation
The group will make their first official appearance at LHS at the pep rally on Dec. 23. Braley said she’d also like them to get involved with Vera House’s White Ribbon awareness campaign in the spring, and they’ll likely make a presentation to upcoming students at the Annex.
Students had also discussed the possibility of eventually performing some kind of scenario for the school. In the scenario, the peer leaders might portray students in a relationship having a fight that escalates to an abusive situation.
“At one of the other schools we’re at, the peer leaders will do a kind of social experiment,” Braley said. “The teachers will be aware. They’ll do it during one of their lunches. The peer leaders will have their roles. They’ll do the scenario within their lunchtime, and then they’ll facilitate a discussion afterwards. I think that’s the key component, to have that conversation.”
The group is closed to new members right now, as core training has already been completed. However, the training will be offered again in the future and new members can join at that time.
“Our hope is that this initial group will slowly start to change the culture of the school,” Braley said. “I think if we can get these kids to start having conversations with their peers, about why that action is probably not okay, and ‘Do you know what you mean when you use that language?’ and really starting to challenge each other. I think once we can do that, our hope is next year building on and having a bigger group of peer leaders, that it’ll start a bigger culture change within the school. That’s why we wanted the staff component. I think it’s kind of unfair to put the pressure just on them. If I’m giving you as a student this information, but I’m walking through the halls and I see this teacher and they’re not doing anything, what kind of message does that send? We want to give the staff the same tools. When you walk through the hallway, and you see something, how can you have an effective conversation? How can you challenge them within that short amount of time and be effective? And once they graduate, they’re going into a bigger community where they continue to have these conversations.”
Vera House also offers programs for students at the elementary and middle school levels. For more information, visit verahouse.org.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.