Nathaniel Fujita Highlights Need for Teen Dating Violence Prevention

BU Professor Emily Rothman weighs in.

Last week’s sentencing of 20-year-old Nathaniel Fujita to life in prison without parole for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Lauren Astley is a grim conclusion to a tragic story of teen dating violence. That’s especially true given the evidence that dating violence can be prevented. “In general, teens who perpetrate violence are capable of change,” says Emily Rothman, a professor at Boston University School of Public Health and an expert on intimate-partner violence perpetration. “I don’t know if I’d extend that to Fujita specifically,” she adds. “But we have hard evidence that [prevention] works.” Studies like one funded by the National Institute of Justice have found that school-level prevention programs in New York City public middle schools reduced dating violence by as much as 50 percent. “I hope that this is a major wake up call to legislators and voters that their support is needed and warranted for dating violence prevention,” says Rothman, who weighs in with the changes that we need to make to avoid more tragedies like these in the future.

We need to recognize that teen dating violence is not just a problem for people in urban poor communities. 

“Both the homicide and its aftermath—including the trial—have definitely increased awareness in Wayland and across Massachusetts about teen dating violence and the importance of teen dating violence prevention,” says Rothman. “There was extra shock that violence could occur in a smaller bedroom community of Boston.”

“Unfortunately, I think that people have a perception that [teen dating violence] is more of a city issue, an issue for people who are in poverty.”

“We know from national data that 1 in 10 high school students are hurt by a dating partner every year, and that these rates tend to be higher where people have fewer resources.”

“But that doesn’t mean that this is not a prevalent issue in all communities,” Rothman explains. “And it’s likely underreported in communities where there is more stigma around being a victim or perpetrator of violence.” 

Dating violence is as pervasive an issue among teens as cigarette use.

“Parents have gotten the message that they’re responsible for talking to their kids about drugs and alcohol,” says Rothman. “But dating violence is not on their radar to the same extent.” Less than a third of teens said that they had talked to their parents about dating abuse in the past year, according to a study by the Family Violence Prevention Fund.

“Which is kind of nuts, because dating violence is as prevalent as smoking cigarettes or driving after drinking,” says Rothman. Nine percent of Massachusetts high school students reported being physically or sexually abused by a dating partner in the past year, according to the 2011 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey. That’s nearly the same percentage that reported current cigarette use (15 percent) or driving after drinking in the past month (seven percent).

“We need to start having these conversations,” says Rothman. “Even if teens outwardly look like they’re not listening, it is helpful still for parents to promote certain messages.”

We need to devote more resources to healthy relationship education in schools.

“Massachusetts currently provides no funding to schools to support healthy relationships education,” says Rothman. Although state funding was available in the nineties, that money was eliminated from the budget following the recession in the early 2000s, according to a member of the Mass. Department of Education’s Board and Media Relations Office.

“This is such a prevalent issue with such potentially horrific consequences and yet we give not a dime to schools or communities for prevention. It’s really unthinkable,” says Rothman. “It’s like there’s an inoculation that we could be giving our kids, and thus far we’ve just chosen not to do it.”

Rothman is quick to add that it’s not the schools fault. “They do the best they can. They are facing budget problems in many areas.”  And some school districts are making efforts to fix this oversight. Boston Public Schools is currently conducting a review of its health and wellness curriculum in order to develop system-wide support for this issue, according to a member of the BPS Communication Department.

“At a minimum, the health teachers and guidance counselors and top level administration need to be trained [in teen dating violence prevention] if we really want to make a dent in the issue.”