August 24, 2018

Maria De Leon

MAKING A DIFFERENCE — Attucks graduates Adriana Gonzales (far left) and Maria De Leon (far right) worked with Domestic Violence Network Director Lindsay Hall Stawick (center, in black jacket) and two students from Park Tudor School on a new teen dating prevention policy for Indianapolis Public Schools.

High school students often think teasing, name-calling and even “playful” pushing and shoving are a normal part of dating relationships. But left unaddressed, these behaviors can become abusive and develop into more serious forms of violence.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 3 teenagers in the United States experiences some form of teen dating abuse. In Indiana, the numbers are worse.

Indiana is ranked No. 3 out of 30 states for sexual teen dating violence, according to 2015 Indiana State Department of Health statistics. Data also shows roughly 10 percent of Indiana teens survey said they have been forced to have sex against their will, and another 10 percent have reported being physically hurt by a person they dated.

These are numbers Maria De Leon, a recent 2018 IPS graduate, wasn’t willing to accept.

During her senior year at Crispus Attucks High School, Maria served on the IPS Superintendent’s Advisory Council and decided to use her connections in the district to elevate the topic of teen dating violence with IPS leadership.

“Maria had a unique access point to elevate the issue,” said Joe Gramelspacher, special projects director for the IPS Superintendent’s Office. “She approached me after an advisory council meeting and asked how policy is instituted at IPS. From there, she couldn’t be stopped.”

Maria, who graduated as salutatorian, immediately joined forces with fellow Crispus Attucks student Adriana Gonzalez and two students from Park Tudor School — all of whom volunteer at the Domestic Violence Network (DVN) in Indianapolis.

“All four young women are members of DVN’s Youth Network and have been amazing advocates in their schools and communities in the past three years,” said Lindsay Stawick, director of programs at DVN.

Under the guidance of Gramelspacher and Stawick, the four students began formulating a proposal to address the issue of teen dating violence at IPS. On April 26, 2018, they presented a plan for a districtwide Teen Dating Abuse Prevention and Response Policy to the IPS Board of School Commissioners.

After demonstrating the importance of the policy and its potential impact on students, staff, and administration, the students were given approval to move forward and began working with Gramelspacher to develop the first draft of the policy.

Maria and Stawick presented the policy to the Board during its July 26 meeting. Officially titled “Policy 5520 — Teen Dating Violence Prevention and Response,” the policy states that a safe and civil environment is necessary for students to learn and achieve high academic standards and that “all members of the school community, including administrators, faculty, staff, parents and students should be engaged in the district’s work to establish a respectful school climate where all students can safely learn and thrive.”

With this policy, the school district seeks to:

  • Place significant responsibility for preventing abusive behavior on members of the school staff by implementing prevention strategies to promote a safe and respectful school climate;
  • Reinforce the respectful school climate by holding students engaging in abusive behavior accountable for that behavior;
  • Enable discreet disclosure by students experiencing abuse so the school can take steps to eliminate abuse where it is happening and seek remedies for the effects of that abuse.

“I personally want to make sure that current and future students have the same opportunity I did to become educated on what domestic violence is, and what a healthy vs. unhealthy relationship looks like,” Maria told IPS Board members.

Maria acknowledged that implementation of the policy could result in an increase in the number of abuse reports, but cautioned, “If we see an increase in reports, it is not because the problem is becoming bigger, but because we are empowering victims to speak out. This policy will enable students to feel comfortable in trusting IPS staff.”

Stawick added: “Implementing this teen dating abuse prevention and response policy would mean that Indianapolis Public Schools is committed to creating a safe and nurturing environment for every person. It would also mean that IPS is taking concrete steps to create a culture where victims and survivors of abuse are supported and people who behave abusively are held accountable.”

Board members were highly receptive to the policy, echoing the positive impact it could have on the health, safety and the well-being of IPS students. 

The IPS Board will likely vote to approve the policy at its next scheduled Action Session meeting on August 30. If approved, the policy will immediately be implemented into the 2018-2019 school year.

“This is a great example of how a strong student voice can make a difference, and even change the rules,” said Gramelspacher.

If approved, Stawick said IPS would be the first school to adopt a teen dating violence prevention and response policy in Indianapolis.

“I am grateful that Maria felt empowered and supported by IPS to lift her voice and advocate for a safer school community,” said Stawick. “I hope that IPS students see Maria and are inspired by her, and that IPS staff continues to make space for youth voices to be heard.”