R.I. schools require violence education

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. He'd incessantly call her at night, keep her from her family, and, ultimately, physically abuse her during a tumultuous relationship that ended with her death three years ago.

Burke's 23-year-old daughter, Lindsay, may not have understood the dynamics of an abusive relationship, but her death is helping to ensure that other young people do.

A new law in Rhode Island called the Lindsay Ann Burke Act requires all public middle and high schools to teach students about dating violence in their health classes.

The initiative was spearheaded by Burke and her husband, Chris, who say schools should be obligated to teach teens the warning signs of abusive relationships and broach the subject head-on so victims feel empowered to get help and leave violent partners.

"If this could happen to her, this could happen to anyone," said Ann Burke, a health teacher who runs a memorial fund to raise money for dating violence workshops for parents and educators.

One other state, Texas, mandates unspecified awareness education on dating violence for students and parents, while several other states encourage it. But the Rhode Island measure goes further by requiring the topic be incorporated annually into the curriculum for students in seventh through 12th grade.

Burke says such education would have allowed her daughter to recognize the danger in her relationship earlier. Though her daughter left her boyfriend several times, she didn't change her phone number or have a plan for safely cutting off contact for good.

She also believed she could be friends with her boyfriend if the romance ended.

"I said, `No, he said that to you before, Lindsay. You can't just be friends,'" Burke recalled.

Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch, who shepherded the proposal through the legislature last year, said domestic violence is a disturbingly common crime, yet education about it is scarce and haphazard.

"You teach sex ed, you teach `don't do drugs,' you teach `don't drink,' you should also be teaching `don't be a victim of domestic violence,'" said Lynch, whose office receives about 5,000 cases a year.

School districts are expected to start implementing the law this school year. By December, officials hope to have established a policy for responding to incidents of dating violence.

The law is gaining traction around the country, with members of the National Association of Attorneys General unanimously adopting a resolution encouraging the education in their states. Nebraska's top prosecutor said he intends to submit legislation modeled after Rhode Island's law, and apparel maker Liz Claiborne Inc. has helped promote it around the country.

The education focuses as much on nurturing good relationships as avoiding abusive ones.

In a recent sophomore health class at South Kingstown High School, teacher Karen Murphy reviewed communication skills for friendships and romantic relationships, including waiting until you're calm before confronting someone with a problem and openly expressing your feelings.

"You've just found out that somebody spread a rumor about you and you approach them at their locker," Murphy told the class. "Are you going to want to start talking to her when you're extremely angry after you've just found out about it?"

"No," the class replied in unison.

Alex Butler, a 15-year-old sophomore, said he didn't think dating violence was a problem at his school but that the education has helped him identify stages of abusive relationships.

"It's nice 'cause then you can warn other people even if you don't know them," he said.

Even if the lessons seem obvious, teachers hope students will recognize that some behaviors they may tolerate in their relationships; obsessive text messaging, for instance, or physical control; are unacceptable and possible precursors to violence.

Ann Burke said Lindsay fell hard for Gerardo Martinez after meeting him at a wedding, and though he seemed respectful and nice, problems emerged after Martinez began exerting control over her daughter.

Ann Burke became so distraught that she couldn't sleep and she sought the advice of counselors. Fearing the worst, she even told Lindsay she couldn't bear to live without her.

One day in September 2005, after Lindsay had moved in with her brother to get away from Martinez, Burke became concerned when Lindsay didn't answer her phone.

Police found Lindsay in the bathtub of Martinez's home, her throat slashed. Martinez was convicted last year of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Burke believes her daughter would have wanted her to teach others about dating violence.

"You may have killed her physical body, but I'll be damned: her spirit is still living on in her family and friends," she said. "We're going to do what we need to do."

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