Relationship Violence Strikes Campuses

By Stewart, Pearl | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, March 2, 2008 | Go to article overview

Relationship Violence Strikes Campuses


Stewart, Pearl, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


Experts say "scarcity" of Black men as well as Black women's achievements could fuel incidents.

Kira Johnson still becomes tearful when she recalls the incident eight years ago when her college boyfriend held a gun to her head threatening to end her life because he feared she was about to leave him.

"I think the only reason he didn't kill me was because I told him to go ahead and do it. I didn't beg him not to kill me. I was so tired and so physically and emotionally exhausted that I just said, 'if you're going to do it, go ahead.' And he just walked away."

That near-deam episode was the turning point for Johnson, who, after enduring nearly four years in the relationship while she pursued her undergraduate degree, finally ended it with the help of supportive family and friends. Johnson said "the pressure to be the ideal couple" and the shame of admitting she was a victim prevented her from discussing the abuse until after the gun incident.

Last December, when Jackson State University undergrad Latasha Norman was found dead and her former boyfriend was charged with her murder, Johnson realized that she, too, could have been a fatal victim of relationship violence.

"I felt I needed to do something personally, to tell my story so that other people could get help," says Johnson, now a licensed social worker pursuing her doctorate at JSU and working as a policy analyst and advocate for victims of domestic abuse.

Johnson helped plan a recent town hall meeting on relationship violence organized in part to help launch the Latasha Norman Center for Social and Clinical Counseling. After Norman's death, JSU president Ron Mason announced the new center as a tribute to the slain student.

Educating Both Sexes

Similar projects have been initiated at colleges and universities around the country as administrators begin to acknowledge the problem as critical. Just as schools have responded to mass shootings on campuses by strengthening their emergency notification systems, increasing reports of relationship violence are resulting in more programs like the one at JSU.

Dr. Carolyn West, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington, Tacoma, who has researched causes of relationship violence, says the issue is not being addressed as aggressively as it should be by college administrators.

"I think there is concern because of the Clery Act. If the incidents are documented, that can affect enrollment," West says, referring to the federal Jeanne Clery Act, which requires all colleges to report major crimes on their campuses annually. The reports are made public and are available on the Internet.

West believes it is important not only to educate women about behavioral signs that may portend violence, but to have "men educating other men about sexual assault and dating violence and holding other men accountable."

Overall, West says the recent tragedies "reflect what's going on in the larger society" and strongly indicate a need for more research. She cites an August 2007 Bureau of Justice Statistics study by Dr. Erika Harrell, which found that African-Americans account for 49 percent of homicide victims nationally while making up only 12 to 13 percent of the population. The study also found that 35 percent of the female homicide victims and more than half of the male victims were Black.

"Most of the research focuses on a narrow slice of African-American life, people who are marginalized. We haven't done as good of a job of researching violence among higher functioning African-American families," West says.

West wrote part of her dissertation on dating violence among African-American youth from low-income families. "There were a lot of adversarial, antagonistic beliefs, not trusting each other, homes with a history of domestic violence," West says. She adds that as colleges accept more students from diverse backgrounds, the problems afflicting those students will arrive on the campuses with them. …

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