As Ethan Young walks up to the front of a Vickery Creek Middle School health class on a Wednesday afternoon, he crosses paths with his mom, Meredith. She’s just finished sharing the story of how her second marriage deteriorated from an abusive relationship, and now it’s Ethan’s turn to speak to a room full of eighth-graders about domestic violence and abusive relationships and how a 16-year-old now makes sense of all the turmoil he saw growing up.
Ethan was hesitant at first to participate in the “Safe Dates” program, a curriculum developed by Joy Stanley, the director of outreach education with Family Haven, to educate local eighth- and ninth-graders about domestic violence and how to have safe dating relationships. But the more Ethan thought about it, the more he felt obligated to share his story.
“I don’t want anybody else to have to go through that,” Ethan said.
Georgia is the No. 1 state for teen dating violence, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and so three years ago, Family Haven, a nonprofit in Forsyth County that provides temporary shelter and other support services for victims of violence, charged Stanley with creating an educational program to take into the community.
“I just had to start fresh,” Stanley said.
Stanley was given the book, “Safe Dates: An Adolescent Abuse Prevention Curriculum,” and the former teacher pulled together ideas from it to form the foundation of a six-lesson program. She used her contacts in the education community to get schools on board. The program is now in 10 of the county’s public middle schools and high schools, as well as Gateway Academy, and Stanley has two other instructors with Family Haven to help facilitate it.
The curriculum gives students a base knowledge of the types and signs of abuse and safe practices for dating relationships. Stanley and the facilitators will talk through fictional scenarios with a class. They show dramatic episodes of domestic violence stories by the television show “48 Hours.”
“My biggest hope is that something we say — it’s a lot of repetition — might save somebody from being in a dangerous relationship,” Stanley said.
But Stanley knew she knew the program needed a more personal touch to reach the students. Stanley unexpectedly found it in Meredith. The two are neighbors and quickly struck up a friendship. Stanley eventually talked about the “Safe Dates” program and her desire to find a guest speaker who had experienced domestic violence.
“I said, ‘Well, guess what?’” Meredith said.
Meredith shared the story of her marriage to her second husband. The two had met online and their chemistry seemed undeniable. “At first he told me everything I wanted to hear,” Meredith said, but things devolved after the wedding. Meredith said he was deceitful and prone to outbursts of violent anger. He snuck money to buy drugs. He once cut off his index finger by slamming it in a door out of anger. He directed verbal abuse to Ethan and his four siblings, even in front of guests.
Meredith said he eventually left in 2014 to pursue another relationship, but the healing process has been ongoing. The two settled the last terms of their divorce this past May.
“It’s taken us a long time to get to this point where we can actually talk about it and heal from it,” Meredith said.
But Meredith was ready to share her story for Stanley’s program in hopes of the impact it might have. They decided to practice at Stanley’s house, and Meredith shared her story in front of Stanley’s teenage daughter and Ethan, who both attend Forsyth Central High School.
“It was really emotional that first time we did it,” Meredith said.
Ethan was jolted by the experience too.
“When we brought the conversation back, it really opened my eyes,” Ethan said. “I just thought I had sort of an obligation to (share) for these kids.”
Ethan practiced a few times too. “The first time we went through all the questions that (Stanley) asked me, I basically sat there with a blank stare,” he said, but it got easier.
“It’s just kind of routine at this point,” Ethan added.
He tells the students about the tension he always felt at home, his conflicted feelings toward his former stepfather who simultaneously raised him like his own son but berated him in front of friends. He tells them how watching the way his mom was treated has informed how he wants to treat his future partner. He tells them how he suffered through silence even though there were adults he could have opened up to.
And the students listen. Stanley thinks it’s the everyday-quality of Ethan that resonates the most; they see a tall, blonde-hair, blue-eyed member of the Central football team who is dual-enrolled, and it cuts through their preconceived notions of what a victim of domestic violence looks like.
“Hearing Ethan speak, how his stepdad disrespected Ms. Meredith, I knew not to ever hurt a female, but it sunk in more than just hearing my dad say it to me,” said Jayden Clark, an eighth-grader at Vickery Creek Middle.
Ethan and Meredith have a new routine now during their presentations. When Meredith leaves the front of the class and Ethan goes to take her place, they exchange a fist bump.
“That’s just awesome,” Meredith said, “because he’s comfortable and confident. We’re ready to make a difference.”