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Seeing Red Flags 

Teaching young girls the warning signs of unhealthy relationships

click to enlarge STEPHEN SCHLANGE
  • Stephen Schlange

She can’t forget the body bag. Jenny Moeller was driving home in rural Montana and passed a restaurant surrounded by yellow caution tape. That night, she heard on the news that a man had killed his girlfriend.

“I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh. That’s going to be me,’” she says.

Moeller’s then-boyfriend would choke and kick her when they got in arguments. He’d insult her and intentionally clean his gun in front of her. She kept thinking she could “fix him,” but gradually realized that was impossible.

Then came the struggle to leave. Moeller says she went back four times before she was finally able to get away. Today she’s living in Spokane, happily married and raising two kids. Though she says her own struggles with domestic violence now seem like a part of her distant past, she is determined to do something to keep other young girls from ending up where she did.

While schools routinely teach about bullying, drugs, alcohol and safe sex, Moeller says there’s no comprehensive curriculum about unhealthy relationships and dating abuse. That’s a problem because the Centers for Disease Control report that about 10 percent of high school students say they’ve been physically hurt on purpose by their boyfriend or girlfriend. Young women are especially vulnerable — the rate of violence against women ages 16-24 is nearly triple the national average for all age groups, according to the Clothesline Project, a nonprofit focused on violence against women.

Meanwhile, the same group reports that about 54 percent of parents say they’ve never spoken to their children about dating violence.

That’s why Moeller has developed a one-of-akind curriculum, called REDFLAG, to educate young women from junior high to college age about the warning signs of unhealthy relationships. While the program includes discussion of the risk factors for dating abuse, it emphasizes self-respect and leadership. The hope is that if young women learn to value themselves, they’ll be more willing to stand up to physical, verbal or emotional abuse.

Moeller already teaches classes to victims of domestic violence at the Spokane office of the regional group Abuse Recovery Ministry and Services, but she says there’s a gulf in understanding between adults who’ve been victims of domestic violence and young people who could be the next generation’s victims. Moeller has taught the REDFLAG class to focus groups at local churches, but now she’s removed references to religion so it can be taught in schools as well. Mead High School has agreed to start this fall with a focus group of about 12 girls and, if it goes well, to consider teaching it in classes. Moeller has trained a few women in Seattle to teach the class and has a contact in Idaho who’s interested, too.

She hopes this is just the beginning.

“The goal for me would be in health class they have a binder they take off wall and they say, ‘OK, this is our safe sex week, this is our no drugs and alcohol week.’ I would love [for REDFLAG] to have that healthy relationship piece,” she says.

The program could be many junior high students’ only chance to learn about dating violence. Twelve-year-old Kyla of Spokane says her parents didn’t talk to her much about what dating would be like (she’s not allowed to date until she’s 16). She didn’t hear about unhealthy relationships in health class, and her friends didn’t talk about it in a serious way.

“A lot of people just joke about it,” she says. “I used to because it’s what everyone else does, but it’s not a joke. It’s a real thing.”

Since taking the class at Life Center Church, Kyla says she spotted a friend who was dating a boy who wanted too much of her time. That’s one of the signs of an unhealthy relationship, she remembered. So the next day she took her REDFLAG folder to school and told her friend, “He needs to let you go be by yourself.”

“My other friends said, ‘I think you’re just being ridiculous,’ but she listened,” Kyla says.

Kalah Pratt, 21, is Kyla’s youth group leader at the church and has sat in on some of Moeller’s classes. But it’s not her first exposure to the warning signs.

Pratt remembers the fights she had with her ex-husband. “He’d say things like, ‘Oh, you’re so lazy. Why don’t you go work out every now and then?’

“You feel crazy,” she says of the arguments they’d have. “In the beginning it makes sense, but by the middle you’re so confused.”

Pratt says she couldn’t understand at first how she’d ended up in a relationship like that. When she started to look back, though, she realized if she’d had more self-awareness and respect, she might never have married someone who was always putting her down.

“That is exactly what this program teaches, in a sense,” she says.

Pratt says she’s been surprised at how much the girls retain what they learn in REDFLAG.

“It’s new information. It’s not like, ‘I’ve heard this 100 times,’” Pratt says. “We say, ‘Listen up. This is really important and it could someday save your life.’ They’re able to grasp that.”

To fund and run the classes, Moeller established a non-profit called Statement. In her own life, she’s hoping to start fostering an understanding of healthy relationships even earlier than junior high. Each night when she tucks her 3-year-old daughter into bed, Moeller asks her, “All right, girlfriend, who are you?”

“She’s like, ‘I know, mom… I’m valuable.’” Moeller says. “I’m like, ‘Yes you are. Yes you are. Don’t you ever forget it.’”

For more information about the REDFLAG program, visit createyourstatement.com. If you or someone you know needs help, call the Alternatives to Domestic Violence 24-hour hotline at (509) 326-2255, the North Idaho Violence Prevention Center at (208) 664-9303 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-7233.

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