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Teens trained to spot drama before it turns dangerous

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Story highlights

After violence between teens, communities wonder, what did we miss?

The Steubenville rape case revived discussions about early intervention

Some schools are teaching kids to rethink relationships, roles as bystanders

Students: It could be as simple as expressing concern or calling 911

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in June 2013.

CNN —  

Lauren Astley knew her ex-boyfriend was having a hard time getting over their breakup.

Nathaniel Fujita hadn’t wanted to end their three-year relationship. He made it clear in a long e-mail, asking her to give him a chance to find “a part of you that still loves me.” But after several “negotiated truces,” as her mother calls them, it was over in May 2011, a few weeks before their graduation from Wayland High School in Massachusetts.

But Lauren, 18, didn’t stop worrying about Nate, especially as he withdrew from his friends. She was known for being kind, caring and deeply involved in the lives of friends – attributes her classmates lauded in her senior yearbook, along with her singing voice and warm smile. She discussed her ex-boyfriend’s antisocial behavior with friends, and they decided together that she should be the one to reach out to him. After weeks of ignoring her texts, Nate, 19, finally agreed to meet her on July 3, 2011.

The next day, her body was found in a marsh about five miles from his home. He had strangled her with a bungee cord, stabbed her multiple times and slashed her throat. Her body was dumped in a nature preserve he knew from science class.

Nate had shown signs of jealousy in the past, but nobody suspected he would hurt Lauren. During his murder trial, his lawyer said he snapped mentally when he killed her. Prosecutors said it was a case of extreme dating violence, that he wasn’t psychotic – just angry, hurt and humiliated by the breakup.

Nate was convicted of first-degree murder in March 2013 and sentenced to life in prison. But the quest for closure doesn’t always end with a jury’s verdict, especially in places like the couple’s hometown of Wayland, which calls itself a “stable and progressive community, characterized by a legacy of civic engagement.”

It’s the kind of idyllic American suburb where “things like this aren’t supposed to happen.” In the wake of her death, community members pondered the warning signs. What did we miss? Could anybody have stopped this before it spiraled out of control?

Lauren’s family saw new meaning in their “typical teen” drama: the fights, the constant cycle of breakups and reunions, the young man’s retreat from social life after the breakup.

But as the couple’s case shows, the line between adolescent drama and dating violence is a hard one to draw, especially in the moment.

Finding a new normal

Questions about what could’ve been done differently arose recently in Steubenville, Ohio, in Torrington, Connecticut, and in other communities where teen dating violence and sexual assault drew national attention. Blame bounces around the victim’s clothes, the amount she drank, whether she “put herself in that situation,” and to the perpetrators, parents and society for fostering a culture in which violence among teens – sexual and otherwise – makes regular headlines.

The Steubenville case, in which a teen was sexually assaulted as others watched, revived discussion around the importance of bystander education – teaching people to intervene safely in behavior that promotes sexual violence, said Tracy Cox with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

School violence prevention programs typically focus on risk-reduction by teaching girls not to be victims and boys not to be rapists, with no other roles to play. Even though bystander intervention is not a new concept, some schools, advocacy groups and corporations are pushing it with renewed vigor in an effort to deter violence.

The goal is to challenge perceptions of “normal behavior” and make teens aware of the nuanced interactions that create a hostile climate. It could be as simple as diverting a friend’s attention when he hollers at a girl on the street, encouraging your sister to talk to her boyfriend instead of secretly checking his texts, sneaking off to call 911 when the popular guys start messing with a girl who’s barely conscious.

“Bystander intervention gives everyone a role to play in preventing relationship violence,” said University of New Hampshire psychology professor Victoria Banyard, whose research has examined bystander intervention in relationship violence prevention programs.

“Chances are, you have a friend, brother, sister or neighbor who will be affected by relationship violence,” she said. “The question is, how good of a friend, brother, sister or neighbor are you going to be?”

Schools have taken on the work of teaching adolescents about substance abuse, sex and in some cases, preventing dating violence. And it works. Evidence shows that classroom education based on lectures and activities can help, as well as programs that enlist coaches to talk to high school athletes about dating violence.

It takes more than classroom education to change cultural norms, Banyard said. It requires community intervention, marketing and government policies, much like the fight to change perceptions of drunken driving and smoking.

“You can change people’s behavior, but it doesn’t happen overnight,” Banyard said.

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  • It starts first by acknowledging that dating violence is a community problem, analyzing risk factors and talking about them, said Emily Rothman, an associate professor with Boston University’s School of Public Health.

    Research shows that parents are less likely to talk to children about dating abuse than school, drugs, alcohol, the economy, even dating and sex in general, she said – despite the fact that it’s just as prevalent as frequent cigarette smoking and driving while drunk, she said.

    That needs to change.

    “The problem is when we look at incidents like this as random acts of craziness instead of dating violence,” she said of Lauren’s death.

    Some risk factors might seem obvious, like groping, stalking or other sexually aggressive behavior, Rothman said. But research shows that an influential factor in dating violence is associating with peers who project negative attitudes toward their partners through actions or words, she said.

    Lauren’s parents say there’s no reason to believe that Nate physically or sexually abused their daughter in a manner straight from the script of a made-for-TV drama.

    But they were dating, and he killed her. As far as the law and public health norms are concerned, it was a case of dating violence.

    Nate’s family doesn’t see it that way. To them, Lauren’s death was a tragic consequence of mental illness, not the result of dating violence.

    His parents declined to be interviewed for this story. His lawyer, William Sullivan, told jurors in his trial that the teen suffered from severe depression. A forensic psychiatrist testified that his family was aware of his struggles with depression and sought treatment when his grades began to suffer during his senior year.

    “According to testimony, the Fujita family, in fact, did not ignore signs that he needed help; they did everything they could to help him,” Sullivan said in a phone interview.

    Regardless, educators, parents and students around the community where Lauren was raised decided to make a change.

    Knowing when to speak up

    The impact of Lauren’s death reverberated through her hometown, down Boston Post Road to the home of Wayland’s rival, Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, or “LS” as it’s known.

    Students from the two schools grow up together, just three miles apart on a congested two-lane road between their once-rural exurbs. They play each other in sports, compete for roles in community theater productions and hang out in the same Dunkin’ Donuts after school.

    Lincoln-Sudbury students know Water Road, the tree-covered path that loops around the nature preserve near their school. When runners and lacrosse players jog, they pass near the marsh where a local resident spotted Lauren’s knees popping from the brackish water the morning of July 4, 2011.

    “Lauren’s death could’ve happened to a student at LS,” said Sam Chen, who’s graduating from Lincoln-Sudbury this year, bound for Amherst in the fall to play lacrosse.

    A National Merit Scholar finalist and co-captain of the champion lacrosse team, Chen added to his busy schedule this year by joining the school’s “Mentors in Violence Prevention” team formed in response to Lauren’s death.