Response to Teen Dating Violence Warning Signs at School

Instructor: Della McGuire

Della has been teaching secondary and adult education for over 20 years. She holds a BS in Sociology, MEd in Reading, and is ABD on the MComm in Storytelling.

In this lesson we will discuss the procedures and protocols for school staff to follow when they are responding to warning signs that might indicate teen violence.

What's Your Sign?

It would be really nice if every potential suitor came with a big sign that could tell you if they are a worthy mate or if they are an abuser. After all, researching online can only tell you so much about a person. Because teen violence is so prevalent (one in three high school students report abuse by a date) and so dangerous (nine out of ten of those abused report suicidal thoughts), it is critical that schools institute a proactive approach to respond. The first step is to recognize the signs that indicate teen violence.

There may not be a big sign with an arrow pointing out the right way to go, but there are some signs that may indicate when a relationship is going all wrong.

Warning Signs

There are several obvious and subtle signs that a teen is an abuser or a victim of abuse.


One observable sign that a teenager is being abused is dramatic mood changes. For example, they may exhibit a reduction in emotional expression, or a flat affect, that could indicate they are being emotionally or psychologically abused. Alternatively, they may seem cagey or hypersensitive, potentially indicating that they have been exposed to danger and are suffering with traumatic stress, which can occur when the brain cycles through the fight or flight or freeze response to fear. Abuse victims may see their grades decline, as they tend to lose focus in class. They may seem to isolate themselves socially, not spending time with others as often as they used to. Isolation from a social support network is a common tactic that abusers will use to control their victims and remove anyone who might help.

Obviously, most of the above signs may not be the kinds of things we think about when we consider teen dating violence. The more common image might be dramatic or overtly physical abuse. It's important to remember that most abuse will never leave a mark, though a student who has a sudden increase in bruises, injuries or medical absences could be in a violent relationship.

Not all abuse fits into this image of aggression expressed with overt violence.

Other physiological signs of abuse might include sexually transmitted infections, or generally poor physical and mental health. Adverse childhood experiences (ACE's) like dating violence can cause several health problems according to a discovery made through a major longitudinal study by the healthcare company, Kaiser Permanente. The ACE's study shows the connection between childhood trauma (including abuse in epidemic proportions) and links these experiences to deadly medical conditions like heart disease, obesity, cancer and more.


Some of the warning signs that someone is an abusive romantic partner could also include drastic mood swings, occasionally with explosive anger. Be cautious of someone who shows extreme or violent expressions of jealousy, is constantly calling or checking in on their partner and making false accusations. Usually when someone accuses a partner of something, it is what they are guilty of themselves, so they project their own faults onto others. Moving too quickly in the relationship or pressuring someone to advance sexually can be a pretty clear sign of abusive potential. Using technology and demanding passwords, checking search history or a cell phone without permission is a kind of control that could also indicate abusive behavior.

Protocols for Responding

In addition to understanding all of these warning signs, schools must ensure that students also know the signs. Schools can create a culture of non-violence by explaining these unhealthy relationship behaviors and the effect they have on others. Specific protocols for responding may vary from state to state or district to district, but there are strict federal guidelines under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act. It requires compliance for anti-discrimination regulations protecting gender and sexual expression. Schools can take these guidelines from the federal government and develop their own outreach program to help students understand their rights to a violence-free school.

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