In 2013, Oregon passed the Healthy Teen Relationship Act (HTRA), mandating that school districts adopt policies and programs that address teen dating violence. Unfortunately, the bill had no funding attached, which made it difficult for districts to implement the requirements. Over five years later, there are still no Oregon school districts meeting the full HTRA requirements. However, in April 2018, the Oregon School-Based Health Alliance developed the Healthy Teen Relationship Act Implementation Project (HTRAIP) in partnership with Raphael House of Portland, Volunteers of America (VOA) Home Free, Portland Public Schools (PPS), and the Student Health Centers at Cleveland and Franklin High Schools. According to PPS, “The [HTRAIP]… aims to create a pilot model for the implementation of HTRA, which could be replicated at other schools in the future.”
The program offers one-on-one support for students via Raphael House of Portland and VOA Home Free, two Portland-based non-profit organizations that have been teaching healthy relationship curriculums in PPS for over a decade. “Relationship Advocates are available at school to support students in developing and maintaining healthy relationships, and to support students who experience dating and/or sexual violence,” says Ashley McAllister, Program Manager at the Oregon School-Based Health Alliance. Currently, there are two healthy relationship advocates working at Franklin and Cleveland: Pamela Zigo from VOA Home Free, and Julia Noble from Raphael House of Portland. They can help with safety planning, providing referrals, and emotional support.
The HTRA Implementation Project’s emphasis on confidentiality has been a point of controversy for the program. Unlike teachers or other school staff members, Healthy Relationship Advocates are required to maintain the confidentiality of everyone who shares information with them and therefore are not mandatory reporters (people who, because of their profession, are legally required to report any suspicion of abuse to the authorities). According to the official program flyers, “The advocate will make every effort to help the disclosure make a report to the appropriate authorities, provide support, and safety plan as needed.” However, some are concerned that by not reporting, teens experiencing abuse might not get the help that they need.
Through educational programs and workshops for students, teachers, and parents along with resources and training for teachers, faculty, and school health center staff, the program hopes to cultivate a school-wide culture that promotes healthy relationships. “Having the confidential advocates allows teens to be able to talk to someone who can help address their safety and develop a plan to tell those who can help,” PPS High School Programs Director Elisa Schorr says. Having one-on-one emotional support for students and access to other community resources is essential to creating an atmosphere that celebrates positive relationships and spreads awareness of the warning signs of potential abuse.
McAllister says that these programs are helping teens stay safe. “When someone is struggling with a relationship or has experienced dating violence, and they know that they are guaranteed confidentiality with an advocate, they are more willing to access services and to be more honest about what they have experienced.” Currently, Franklin and Cleveland are the only schools in the country where confidential healthy relationship advocacy is being offered on-site. “Receiving district approval to do this was huge,” says McAllister. She hopes that the district can secure more funding to keep these programs going; without it, the programs will end this December.
“We know data shows students face issues in schools around sexual harassment and teen dating violence,” says Schorr. Without access to these programs, students dealing with abuse could be unsure of where to go for help. McAllister says that access to these advocates is important and has received positive responses from students who say that having access to these advocates at school during the school day matters to them. Whether or not the program secures the funding to continue, it has set an example for other schools to follow in the future. As knowledge of the prevalence of relationship abuse expands, programs like the HTRA Implementation Project could start popping up across the country.