*Last name has been removed to protect privacy
When Diana*, now 22, started dating her first boyfriend seven years ago, she didn’t think the situation would quickly turn into a nightmare. After losing her virginity to him, their relationship took an unexpected and scary turn. “I worked hard to be a ‘good’ girlfriend,” Diana told NationSwell. “I would do things for him because a good girlfriend would do everything he asked.” Limiting her friendships was a common theme, as was continually making her feel like she was in the wrong. “He was very manipulative. But at the time, I was so blind, naive and clueless that I went along with it anyway.”
Though the two dated on and off for about eight months, controlling and condescending behavior — and signs of violence — appeared early and often. “Every time I would try to talk to him about something, he would always shift the blame to me and always put me down.”
Eventually, physical violence became an issue, too. While her boyfriend would continuously threaten to beat up others in their circle of friends — including one moment where he threatened to hit her, too — a turning point came about a month and a half into their relationship. “I hadn’t even thought about leaving him, but he said he had a gun at his friend’s house and was going to shoot himself,” Diana said. “I was scared shitless. I had no clue if I should cry, confront him, or tell him I was there for him.”
Even though her high school had a guidance counselor, it was a meeting with her school’s RAPP (Relationship Abuse Prevention Program) coordinator, Ellen*, that helped her find the support she needed to end the relationship. “I didn’t go to my guidance counselor because they weren’t there to help with emotional issues,” Diana said.
Unlike traditional counselors, RAPP coordinators are licensed social workers trained to host workshops that focus on self-empowerment or LGBTQ relationships, something Diana and her fellow classmates gravitated toward. “Ellen was comfortable and open with us from the start: We’d go up to her whenever something bad was going on with our day, and she would make the time for us. She made us feel comfortable in that space,” Diana said. “That changed high school for us.”
After breaking up with her boyfriend that summer, Diana spent time focusing on herself. She got a job, took swimming lessons, watched shows, went out, and found renewed focus academically. She also trained to become a RAPP peer leader, through an optional program that empowers teens to train others to recognize and change patterns of destructive behavior before transitioning into adult relationships, a process that helped her improve her communication with friends about the ups and downs of teen romance.
“My advice to other young girls out there is to not lose sight of who you are in relationships. Don’t ignore yourself. We only get one body, and we only live our life once, and we are only young once. Do not waste your youth on other people.” – Diana*, 22
HELPING TEENS DEFINE INTIMACY
Funded by NYC’s Human Resources Administration and the Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence, and working in partnership with Day One, Steps to End Violence and Urban Resource Institute (URI), RAPP’s main goal is to create a safe space where teens can confidentially share details about their romantic relationships, at a time when hormones and emotions play a huge role in intimacy. The result: Teens who experienced violence at home, who felt they didn’t have a voice in their relationships, gravitated toward the program. “It brought the students back to the community, and helped them succeed academically,” Luis Matos, senior director of community education and prevention services at URI, told NationSwell.
Once licensed social workers are certified via RAPP, they’re placed within high schools throughout the city, turning spare space and empty classrooms into safe spaces where all genders and sexual orientations can discuss issues like power dynamics, disabilities, race and class. Among the services they provide are trauma-informed individual and group counseling, as well as classroom workshops to educate students on what qualifies as abuse. Professional development is also provided for teachers and staff. Participants can be referred by school faculty or peers, or they can self-refer.
Care is taken to ensure that students of all gender expressions are placed with coordinators they feel comfortable with, and low- and high-income neighborhoods receive equal attention. “This isn’t a program that gets at any particular economic group, because abuse is everywhere: It has nothing to do with gender, race or economics,” said Matos. “It doesn’t matter what community you’re in.”
In each 45-minute workshop, teens learn about “consent” vs. “coercion” — concrete terms that help them to frame their life experiences. “If somebody asks you out five times and you say no four times and on the fifth time you said yes, is that consent? We’ll have lively discussions about that,” Day One Social Work Supervisor Rebecca Stahl told NationSwell. “We don’t try to come into those conversations with answers. It helps young people form a critical analysis of the relationships they see in the media, in school, modeled by their parents and modeled by their peers.”
Stephanie Nilva, a former attorney who practiced family and marital law specializing in domestic abuse, was inspired to start Day One by her work with adult couples. “When I talked to them [about] tracing their history, they would say things like, ‘This happened when we were dating; this happened before we got married,’” Nilva told NationSwell. “But extreme jealousy is a warning sign of an abusive relationship. People say things will settle down … and often, it doesn’t stop.”
While some intimate situations have clear boundaries, “early patterns of abuse are much more nuanced than ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ especially if people are trying out relationships for the first time,” Stahl said — a reality Diana experienced firsthand in her relationship. “I did have my moments where I took a step back and thought to myself, ‘Should I really be with him?'” Diana said. “But he was very, very, manipulative. Every time I would take one foot out, he would convince me to go back in,” she said.
THE HISTORY OF RAPP IN NYC
While teenagers like Diana view RAPP’s services as an indispensable tool for helping them successfully navigate high school romance, the program has a deep history in the city’s domestic violence prevention strategy. Urban Resource Institute is one of three New York City-based nonprofits that provide domestic violence outreach services while teaching teens to recognize early signs of abuse — the kind that can sometimes be confused with passion. Since its inception in 1980, URI has expanded to operate 12 domestic violence shelters throughout the city, which accommodate as many as 1,200 survivors daily. RAPP was launched in collaboration with Center Against Domestic Violence (CADV) in 1997, which merged with URI in 2018. The program empowers youth to find the help they need to identify and address what makes relationships abusive, while training adults to work with survivors of sexual assault. URI is one of three organizations in the city that offers the RAPP program; Day One and Steps to End Violence also offer it as part of their services.
Initially, RAPP was run out of NYC’s alternative high schools, providing a curriculum designed for teens in areas that typically receive less funding. In 1999, two years after the program was founded, CADV, the predecessor to URI, received enough funding from the New York City Human Resources Administration to expand into five public schools across all five boroughs, and RAPP was officially born.
“By the time Diana came into our program, we were already in schools for 10 years,” Matos said. “We didn’t have the resources to be in every school but we were able to identify, through the help of the DOE and administrators, schools that might be interested in having a social worker placed in their school to address teen relationship abuse.”
The RAPP program is currently in 94 schools city-wide, and does more than host workshops with students. Abuse prevention, intervention, professional development, community outreach and parent education are also areas of focus, as well as expanding the program into middle schools, through a program called Early RAPP, which launched in 2018. Though those workshops aren’t led by licensed social workers and don’t offer individual counseling sessions, community educators provide in-classroom resources and workshops, to reach students who might be starting relationships even earlier than high school.
Today, Diana is attending college, studying to become a nurse. Though she’s vocal about the lasting emotional effects her previous relationship had and the work it took to heal, she’s grateful for her current partner’s support. She also counts herself fortunate to have found someone who shares her dreams and ambitions. “Something as traumatizing as that … you’re bound to be scarred for life. I let [my current partner] know about what I went through, and he’s been very supportive, understanding, and careful with me, which I really appreciate.”