Shelter Island teens learn to identify, resist abuse through Retreat program

In a short film clip, a boy asks his girlfriend during a phone call what she’s wearing, and then criticizes her choice, seemingly not for the first time. This was a Shelter Island 10th grader’s tip that the girl in the film she was watching with her class on Jan. 23 is in an abusive relationship.

The girl’s brushing off her boyfriend’s comments to a friend overhearing the conversation could be another sign. The girl in the film clearly wants to protect the relationship regardless of its negative aspects, another student said. She might be blaming herself for the abuse in her relationship, still another student suggested.

“Just because it’s not physical doesn’t mean it’s not abuse,” the film’s narrator said.

The film is part of a four-session discussion with Island students on what constitutes abuse in relationships. The program is presented by The Retreat’s Education Program Director Helen Atkinson-Barnes, whose aim is to reach students early, with the hope they won’t engage in abusive relationships and will know how to help friends who may be in unhealthy situations.

The Retreat is an East Hampton-based organization serving the East End community by offering shelter, support and counseling to victims of domestic abuse. It also offers, according to its website, a 24-hour bilingual hotline, counseling, legal advocacy, prevention education and emergency shelter.

The 10th graders were engaged, willing to participate in exercises designed to teach them what to expect and what not to tolerate in their own relationships. There were also exercises on how to help friends they sense might be involved in abusive relationships.

They spent time in workshops learning to identify what’s healthy and what’s not in a relationship; the dynamics of abuse that may or may not be physical; what constitutes consent; what personal boundaries are; and how to reach out to a friend who might be experiencing abuse at home or in a relationship outside the house. 

At no time during workshop sessions did Ms. Atkinson-Barnes ask students to reveal personal information. 

In one workshop, students were asked to form two lines facing one another and then have one line walk toward the other until the person opposite asks them to stop. Different people might have different needs for space, but how the person approaching reacts to the request to stop is critical, Ms. Atkinson-Barnes said.

In the latest workshop last week, students were asked to pair up with someone in the class they knew less well than others and have a brief discussion to discover similarities they shared. They discovered likes and dislikes in food, sports, travels and the seasons of the year they preferred or disliked.

While it’s said opposites attract, it’s also important to have some similarities, Ms. Atkinson-Barnes said.

As for interceding with a friend, she pointed out it’s not unusual for an abused person to feel he or she is to blame. You don’t want to add, the counselor said, to that feeling by saying something critical. But start the conversation, Ms. Atkinson-Barnes said, by asking how your friend is feeling and be willing to listen if he or she wants to talk. Don’t judge them, but believe them and offer to help — perhaps by accompanying them to seek help from someone who can intervene or just give them a sympathetic hearing.

Demonstrate to your friend that you are listening, maintaining eye contact, she said, and perhaps repeating what you have heard or nodding that you understand what your friend has told you.

If you see signs of physical abuse or your friend talks about it, Ms. Atkinson-Barnes said a good solution is to offer to help seek assistance — perhaps by contacting The Retreat where qualified counselors are available without charge. The hotline number is 631-329-2200 or check for more info about The Retreat.

It may be that counseling, medical care or legal advocacy and/or shelter is needed. In a critical situation, Ms. Atkinson-Barnes said, local police remain available to intervene to prevent a person from being harmed by an abuser.

The aim of programs in schools is not only to make students aware of services available but to teach them at an early age what to expect and what they shouldn’t tolerate in their relationships, Ms. Atkinson-Barnes said.

She offers workshops geared to students at different levels and will be presenting a program in Riverhead aimed at middle school students. She has also brought her workshops to Greenport and hopes to be able to do them for Southold School District students as well.

Police: Island averages 21 domestic abuse cases per year

In what has to be one of the most idyllic towns on earth, Police Chief Jim Read reports that Shelter Island officers respond to an average of 21 domestic abuse cases a year. His statistics are based on a 10-year average.

“We maintain an excellent working relationship with The Retreat,” Chief Read said, noting the East Hampton-based organization (see story this page), is one of several services his department offers to victims of domestic violence.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that in New York State:

• 32.3% of women and 33.5% of men have experienced physical violence from an intimate partner.

• 12.1% of high school students in the state have reported being physically hurt by a significant other in the past year, and 11.8% have reported sexual dating violence.

• While incidents of homicides in New York State declined between 2012 and 2013, the number of domestic violence homicides increased by 16% during the same period.

The statistics compiled by the National Domestic Violence Hotline show an alarming 24 people per minute in the United States are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner. That adds up to more than 12 million women and men identified as victims over the course of a year.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline breaks down its statistics as follows:

• Three in every 10 women and one in every 10 men have experienced domestic violence.

• Nearly 15% of women and 4% of men have been injured in their lifetime as a result of domestic violence.

• Nearly half of all women and men in the United States have experienced psychological aggression at some point in their lifetimes by an intimate partner.

• Most female victims of intimate partner violence were previously victimized by the same offender.