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Phoenix-Area Nonprofit Teaches Teens The Root Of Healthy Relationships
Several years before the #MeToo and #IHave hashtags began a movement rallying support against sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace, another movement was already underway here in the Valley.
For several years, teenagers at Barry Goldwater High School have been learning how respect, empathy and trust are at the root of any good relationship.
On the courtyard outside the main corridor, students socialized as they waited for the bell. Two girls stood hand in hand, while another girl rested her head comfortably on a boy’s shoulder. And, nearly everyone had smartphones with earbuds hooked to their ears.
It’s the attachment to their electronics that has their health teacher Marlene Kepner worried.
“I think they’re facing a lot more pressure than we did in the '80s, just because of technology, and social media,” she said while grading papers from the back of a large lecture hall.
It’s a Friday, the fourth in a series of seven, where she hands the class over to guest lecturer Donna Bartos.
At the moment, she’s handing out remote controls she calls “clickers.”
“Everyone got their clicker?” she asked as a cacophony of plastic against metal filled the room.
Bartos uses the remotes to instantly measure student’s perceptions and attitudes.
As the founder and director of the nonprofit Bloom365, she is particularly interested in their attitudes toward dating and gender roles.
“Who agrees with this statement, ‘Violence is entertaining?’” she read aloud as the opinions of some 100 students instantly and anonymously appeared on the giant screen.
In an earlier lesson, Bartos asked the students, “How many had experienced dating abuse?”
“Do you remember your clicker question about how many people experience dating abuse?” she asked them.
Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control found approximately 10 percent of high school students reported physical victimization and 10 percent reported sexual victimization from a dating partner within the past year. For high school women, the report shows one in five have experienced dating violence in their past.
"[Teens are] facing a lot more pressure than we did in the 80s, just because of technology, and social media." —Marlene Kepner, high school health teacher
With the ability to remain faceless, 50 percent of the students in Kepner’s class confirmed with clickers that they’ve experienced some form of dating abuse. Most are victims, and others are perpetrators.
The program, Bartos said, is designed to help both escape the cycle, which typically starts as a learned behavior, much like it did in her home more as a young child.
“My dad put my mom up against the wall,” she retold the same story to three separate classes, and each time a lump caught her throat as she continued, “… there was a nail sticking out of the wall and I saw it hit the back of my mother’s head.”
Her mother lived through it, but as a young child, it became the first of several stubborn roots forming beneath her.
“Taught abusive behavior,” she continues with the clicker survey. "Do you agree that if kids are watching domestic violence from little ones they may see it as the way it’s just supposed to be?”
The students answer overwhelmingly, "Yes."
For Bartos, the learned behavior was hard to break when she started dating at age 15. “This awesome, cute, popular guy,” she remembered, “and everything was great the first six months.”
But then, she noticed the first signs of power and control. “He didn’t want me talking to any other guys.” She admitted she mistook it for love, and then she said he began isolating her. “’If you really loved me, you wouldn’t spend time with your friends,’” she’d hear.
“It wasn’t till I got my head slammed on a floor in college,” after five years of verbal and emotional abuse that she left and started advocating for healthy relationships.
Two decades smarter, Bartos is determined to teach 100 students at a time about Bloom365 and the premise behind the wilting and blooming flower theory.
“So, everything we do at Bloom365 is based on a visual of a blooming and wilting flower,” she explained while standing in front of a giant poster with the organization’s signature blooming flower vibrantly towering over a cowering, withering version of itself.
Both flowers have seven roots. The blooming side is rooted with Empathy, Self-Esteem, Trust, Independence, Taught Positive behavior, and Social Change.
The wilting flower struggles with roots deep in Oppression, Unhealthy Gender Norms, Insecurity, Learned Abusive Behavior, Patriarchy, and Social Acceptance.
Both flowers have one root in common, Choice.
She is standing in front of the Bloom365 flower logo with decaying roots running up to a wilting flower's stem labeled Power and Control.
Bartos explained that it’s “what we see on the surface. We can recognize that person is controlling or they want to gain power over someone else.”
Further up the stem, the wilting flower’s bloom is overloaded with symptoms of abuse. “From jealousy to isolation, humiliation, dominance, physical assaults,” Bartos continued, “Anything that can be considered verbal, emotional or physical violence is in the center of that flower.”
Those words rang out for 16-year old Emily who sat through a Bloom365 lecture last year.
“I was in a relationship. I thought it was perfect, nothing was wrong with it until I went through Bloom.” She remembered lights flashing through her head as a warning and thinking, ‘Wait, this is happening, the wilting, the stem, and the power and control and it’s not building up, it’s wilting down.”
She said he threatened her when she texted him to say it wasn’t working out.
It’s that independence and self-trust Bartos assured students would help guide them up the blooming flower’s stem toward freedom and equality.
Because insecurity works against those basic liberties, and because high schools are rife with self-doubt, Bartos has shifted from the clickers to simple paper and asks students to hand in their “Elephant In The Room” cards.
“We ask the students to think about questions, that maybe they’re uncomfortable asking in the class,” she explained. Bloom takes every card seriously.
Even if some students do not.
“One card left today.” Bartos pulled it out of the basket and read aloud, “‘That girl standing by the door, I want to f*** her!’”
She’s aware of the irony, and vindicated working against such stereotypes.
“They feel humor underlies the acceptance of looking at a girl as an object,” Bartos lamented. She sees social acceptance insidiously creeping through to students via social media.
“On Twitter or Instagram… do you see any of this wilting stuff going on?” she throws the question out to the clicker crowd, “… People being humiliated, girls being slut-shamed.”
It’s here, when wilting spirits are prone to abuse, that Bartos reminded students that the last root under each flower is the same.
“Choice!” she hollered. “How many of you chose what to wear today?”
Hands went up, some eager to prove they’re independent and free to make that choice every day.
“Well, you also have a choice to either wilt the world around you or bloom it up!” she reminded them. “Be kind to others.”
And, when given a choice to be a victim, a perpetrator or even a bystander, she suggested standing up.
“When 10 percent of you in this room start being more kind to each other, start believing that equality is something we all deserve and need, the 90 percent take note. And then ultimately violence is no longer entertaining, sexual assault is no longer funny, and man you don’t have to be aggressive, you can be who you are.”