After the dismissal bell rang at Penn Wood High School one recent Tuesday afternoon, students began trickling into a classroom for an unusual after-school activity: a class on relationships.
Their teacher, Valencia Peterson, who goes by “Coach V,” stood at the front of the classroom with a stack of surveys, which asked students to write yes or no in response to such statements as “I have a good idea of what a relationship should be” and “I know how to be in a healthy relationship.” A PowerPoint presentation on identifying parts of their bodies where they feel anger using smiley-face stickers glowed on the projection screen behind her.
The class is part of Open Door Abuse Awareness and Prevention (ODAAP), a nonprofit that Peterson started in 2014 to break the cycle of domestic violence and sexual assault by equipping students with tools to manage their emotions, an understanding of what healthy relationships look like, and someone they can talk to about these issues.
ODAAP is currently working with six schools in the Philadelphia area: Conwell Egan Catholic High School, Imhotep Institute Charter High School, Wissahickon High School, Truman High School, Penn Wood and Delaware Valley University.
As her Tuesday class settled down, Peterson started by asking students to talk about their experiences with anger.
“When I get angry, my heart starts beating really fast,” one girl said.
“My stomach hurts,” another boy said. “And I know that my facial expression changes.”
Peterson nodded as the students shared, making eye contact with each person who talked.
“Great, now let’s talk about self-regulation,” she said. “What are some places each of you can go where you feel safe enough to calm down?”
City officials and public health experts have been trying to decrease domestic violence in Philadelphia for years. In the last five years, an average of 19 people, mostly women, were killed in domestic violence in Philadelphia each year, according to Women Against Abuse. Just last Christmas, a man fatally stabbed his girlfriend in front of her children in Olney, also injuring her 14-year-old son.
The issue is serious in adolescents’ relationships, as well. A 2015 report by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence found that 17.3% of students in Philadelphia have been hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend in the last year — almost twice the national average.
Peterson, who lives in Lansdowne, is familiar with the personal toll of domestic violence. Her father shot and killed her mother during an argument when she was a child.
“I believe my dad had issues that weren’t addressed,” she said. “I don’t believe that my dad woke up that morning wanting to kill my mom. And I want to help kids address those issues and prevent them from going down a path that they don’t intend to go down.”
Similar programs to this relationship class have shown promising results. One example is Coaching Boys into Men, a national evidence-based violence prevention program launched in 2001 as a national public service campaign in which athletic coaches teach young male athletes about respecting others — particularly women and girls. Peterson uses the program at some of the schools she works with, and sits on its advisory board, which oversees any curriculum changes.
Elizabeth Miller, chief of the division of adolescent and young adult medicine at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, has been studying the impact of Coaching Boys into Men for years. She was also instrumental in implementing the program at schools in the Pittsburgh area.
In 2012, Miller conducted a three-year evaluation of the program in Sacramento, Calif., which was funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The evaluation found that after three months, high school participants were more likely to intervene when they witnessed problematic behavior, such as telling an adult or speaking with the people involved, than students who did not participate. Miller also found that a year after the program, athletes who participated were more likely to report abuse and were less likely to ignore or laugh off abusive behavior among their peers.
“Many athletes look to their coaches as a mentor or another father figure,” Miller said. “When coaches are conveying these messages about respect and nonviolence and leadership, those messages carry a lot of weight.”
Miller published a study focused on the program’s effects on middle schoolers earlier this month. She said she was initially skeptical of whether Coaching Boys into Men would lead to the same results — middle school sports seasons are shorter, relationships with coaches tend to be “looser,” and kids tend to pick sports based on what their friends are choosing. But the results surprised her.
“Even with the sports season being super-short, all this variability, we moved the needle dramatically,” Miller said. “Even a little bit of messaging from coaches in middle school can matter a lot. Developmentally, young people are more open to messages from adults, and they’re figuring out how they feel about relationships and intimacy and attraction.”
Every Wednesday, Peterson arrives at Penn Wood by 6:45 a.m. She pins a button that says “free hugs” on her shirt and greets every student who walks in the school’s main entrance. Even for those who don’t want a hug, Peterson wants them to know who she is, and that they can come to her for advice.
“The biggest thing is that [Peterson] spends time with the kids,” said John Kea, a geometry teacher who has been working with Peterson for four years. “[She] gets in their world and effects change that way. The kids just need someone to listen to them and help guide them through the things they’re facing, and they know she’s there.”
Even now, Peterson’s former students stay in touch with her after going off to college.
“I get DMs from previous students coming to me for advice,” she said. “They say things like, ‘I’m having issues with my girl, what do I do? I don’t want to become my dad.’”
Christian Santos met Peterson in 2014 when he was a football player at Penn Wood. He said that Peterson, who lives near the high school, used to walk around the school’s track. One day, she approached the football coach and asked whether he was interested in starting a program that would help his players be better men on and off the field.
“I had personally identified that we had a lot of talent on the team,” said Santos, who is now a 21-year-old senior at the College of Wooster in Ohio. “But some of the guys demonstrated toxic behavior and a lack of self-worth. As one person, I couldn’t really bring about that change.”
After Peterson began working with the players, Santos said he saw changes in his teammates. He said that many of them exhibited more vulnerability and a willingness to share. Others severed toxic relationships.
“I would call people out,” Santos said. “I started holding these guys to a standard. And after we started that culture, we went undefeated, and that was really special for me.”
Peterson said she hopes to expand her programming in the future, but her current priority is forming lasting relationships with the students. She feels particularly gratified when she sees students begin to open up over the course of a class, sharing about things like how their parents’ struggles affected them or how they felt in their first relationships.
“I’m just trying to give these kids the opportunity to know better,” Peterson said. “Hopefully, then they can self-regulate and get ahold of themselves before they go off. If you don’t know it’s an issue, you can’t do nothing about it.”