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Q&A: The CDC Takes a Comprehensive Approach to Teen Dating Violence Prevention

Photograph of Andra Tharp.

Last week, we wrote about the dearth of teen dating violence prevention programs that have been shown to be effective. Attempting to fill the gap, especially for young people in high-risk urban communities, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has developed an initiative that targets middle-school students, their parents, their teachers and others.

Local health departments are leading 5-year demonstration projects to test the approach, called Dating Matters, in Oakland, CA, Fort Lauderdale, FL, Chicago and Baltimore. Each project includes evidence-based and evidence-informed curricula for 6th-, 7th- and 8th-grade students and their parents, teacher training, a communitywide anti-dating violence campaign, and policy-making support for health officials.

Andra Tharp, the CDC health scientist who leads the initiative, says Dating Matters’ comprehensive approach sets it apart. Six months into the implementation of the projects, we talked to Tharp about what she and her colleagues hope to achieve.

NCFY: Are there any challenges you’ve seen so far?

Tharp: Schools have so many priorities and so much to accomplish that it has been challenging to negotiate the time in the schools. In a lot of dating violence prevention programs, scientists are looking for new ways to engage youth that don’t add additional burden to the schools. We’re not using it in Dating Matters, but for example, Coaching Boys Into Men uses coaches instead of going through the school day. And Families for Safe Dates [a curriculum used by Dating Matters] engages parents. We have to find these ways of engaging youth outside of the school day because of the burden that it can be to schools and the multiple priorities that they have, but also the idea of layering these messages so that wherever youth are going, they’re hearing the same messages about healthy relationships. 

NCFY: What’s your great hope for the demonstration project?

Tharp: The evaluation will compare the comprehensive approach to a school-based, one-grade-only implementation of a teen dating violence program, because basically we want to know, is there any added value to doing all of these other components. So our hope is that the comprehensive approach will be more effective and that we can move towards making Dating Matters available to other communities.

NCFY: You mentioned there are 40 schools in the pilot. That’s a lot of kids and a lot of parents. What’s the value of trying to reach people on a larger scale like that, of this community approach that you’re talking about?

Tharp: That’s a great question. That’s really one of the reasons that we approached it like this, on this large of a scale. I mean it’s a huge pilot, if you will. And the reason for that is we didn’t just want to see rates come down in youth reports of violence. We really want to see rates of violence in communities and cities drop. And that’s why we’ve chosen to implement on such a large scale and involve so many individuals in these youths’ lives to help continually reinforce this message of healthy relationships.

NCFY: That’s a pretty ambitious goal.

Tharp: It is. It is. But it’s what is necessary. You know, we don’t have excellent data on the problem of teen dating violence at a national level. The best we really have is the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which has one question on physical dating violence. And that survey has shown that there’s been no change over the past ten years in physical dating violence victimization. It’s stayed right around 10 percent.  So that tells us we have work to do. The big problem necessitates a big solution. And that’s what we’re trying to achieve with Dating Matters.

Andra Tharp's photograph from CDC Newsroom.

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