Several years ago, I ended a relationship that turned from loving to life-threatening in a short span of time (two months). When this person learned that I was ending the relationship, he became enraged and threatened to kill me, my ex-husband, and himself. Frightened, scared for the safety of my family and myself, and completely unfamiliar with domestic violence, I turned to my local police department for help. What happened next was a life-changing experience that also helped me grow as an educator. My interaction with the local family violence unit of criminal court helped me see a side of criminal law (a subject I have taught for years) in a new way, and put me in touch with advocates who work exceptionally hard to reduce the devastating incidences and effects of domestic violence against women and children. When the dust settled and peace returned to my daily life, my reflections made me think of one thing only: my students. Not all signs of domestic violence are visible, and there is an added challenge when working online because teachers cannot physically see the student.
Domestic violence has been a reality in civilized society since a time prior to the Bible,[i] but it has only been within the last thirty years that public recognition of its effects has infiltrated the media, such as through movies like “The Burning Bed,” and the law, such as through legislation making domestic violence a crime. This has been due in part to the writings and research of Lenore Walker, who has been called the “Mother of the Battered Woman’s Syndrome.” [ii] The phrase “domestic violence” actually refers to any pattern of abuse exhibited by one member in an intimate relationship over the other.[iii] Domestic abuse, spousal abuse, intimate partner violence, and family violence are other phrases that are used to describe the same situation. [iv] Moreover, domestic violence takes on many different forms. It can involve physical contact as well as emotional/psychological manipulation and threats. [v] It occurs in heterosexual as well as homosexual relationships.[vi] (The vast majority of victims of domestic violence are women, and for this reason I will use the female gender when referring to victims. However, it should be noted that men are also victims of domestic violence). [vii]
Domestic violence primarily involves a pattern of abuse over time. [viii] The most commonly understood form of domestic violence is physical contact. However, an even greater number of women are injured psychologically, sexually, and financially due to abusive patterns inflicted by their mates. [ix] More than two-thirds of all domestic violence incidences go unreported.[x] In the United States, it has been estimated that a woman is battered by her intimate partner every fifteen seconds.[xi] According to the Center for Disease Control, domestic violence affects more than 32 million Americans. [xii] This equates to roughly 22 percent of our population. [xiii] Because a significant number of this percentage includes students in school, it is imperative that educators have a solid understanding of domestic violence and its impact on victims.
The effects of domestic violence are long-term and devastating. Studies suggest that 40–72 percent of all women who have been physically abused are injured as a result.[xiv] While broken bones and cuts heal, the psychological and financial fallout of being controlled and abused can take years or even decades to overcome.[xv]If a victim is still living with her abuser, the debilitating effects are ongoing and are a source of significant anxiety, fear, apprehension, confusion, and feeling of inadequacy.[xvi] Depression is an almost universal byproduct of domestic violence, due in part to the victim being constantly criticized.[xvii]If a victim is in the process of leaving her abuser, she is in greatest danger of being hurt or killed by him.[xviii] If a victim is no longer living with her abuser, it is likely that she is still recovering from the abuse.[xix] It is estimated that post-traumatic stress disorder, long-term anxiety, and panic accompany domestic violence. [xx] And even after the abuse has stopped, its effects can persist, including flashbacks, nightmares, and exaggerated responses.[xxi]
- Battered Woman’s Syndrome and the Law
The phrase “Battered Woman’s Syndrome” was first coined by Lenore Walker in the 1970s. [xxii] Ms. Walker described a cycle of systematic and almost ritualistic physical and psychological abuse. [xxiii] A victim who survives such attacks is often isolated and left feeling low self-esteem and little to no control over her life.[xxiv]The devastating effect of years of domestic violence is that the victim feels completely helpless over her life, while the abuser becomes more empowered with every wound inflicted.[xxv]
Prior to Ms. Walker’s breakthrough study, victims of domestic violence who acted out against their abusers were treated harshly by the law. Traditional self-defense principles were used in their defense but were hard to prove. [xxvi] Some abused women attacked their abusers while they slept because they knew that they would be beaten once he awoke. However, under self-defense principles these women were convicted because they could not show that they were in “imminent fear” of death or substantial bodily harm when they committed the act. [xxvii] Abused women also had difficulty meeting the requirements that they retreated to safety and that she was not the first aggressor. [xxviii]
Critics of the defense claim that anyone can claim abuse to try to obtain relief from acting criminally. [xxix]Some courts require those claiming the defense to undergo a psychiatric evaluation prior to judicial determination of whether evidence of syndrome will be admissible.[xxx] Moreover, there are some who feel that although “although originally proposed as a theory entirely sympathetic to women who were battered and killed in order to stop the battering, the syndrome now reinforces some of the most archaic and destructive stereotypes historically attached to women. Battered Women’s Syndrome may ironically represent a step backwards for the women’s movement.”[xxxi] However, there is one fact that remains undisputed: despite the use of the defense, domestic violence in our country persists at an alarming rate.[xxxii]
Signs of Abuse and FERPA
A. Warning Signs of Abuse
Given the number of women enrolled in educational settings and the alarming statistics about domestic violence perpetrated against women, it is imperative that educators understand the nature and extent of domestic violence in order to lend support to their students. Although male students also can experience the detrimental effects of domestic violence, statistics demonstrate that more women than men are the subject of domestic abuse. [xxxiii] The correlation between obtaining an education and quality of life for women is well documented. Educators who are cognizant about domestic violence indicators can work within the parameters of the law and their institution’s policies to maximize support for students suffering abuse outside of school. This support will prove critical for student success and quality of life.
Signs of domestic abuse are not always easy to spot since most abuse occurs away from the school setting and many victims are embarrassed about what they have endured. Other victims may feel fearful about retaliation for reporting abuse. Some of the physical warning signs of domestic abuse can include injuries explained as accidents, dressing to cover injuries, emotional outbursts, frequent lateness or absenteeism, and reduced productivity.[xxxiv] Psychological warning signs of abuse include low self-esteem, social withdrawal, personality changes, depression, anxiety, self-blame, fear, and suicidal tendencies.[xxxv] What complicates accurate assessment is that these signs may be very subtle in some students or undetectable completely in others unless the instructor knows the student well. Limited interaction due to a focus on teaching does not foster development of deeper teacher/student relationships.
Educators may understand and even spot warning signs of abuse, but it is essential that they also be aware of the limitations imposed on what they can do under the law and policies in place in the institution where they work. If a teacher suspects abuse, it may not be appropriate for him/her to approach the student to discuss the situation, as the student may be put off by such contact and that may be a violation of institution policy. In addition, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law enacted in 1974 to protect disclosure of educational records and personal information held by educators at institutions receiving federal funds, places limitations on what information about a student an educator can share with others.[xxxvi] Educators and institutions cannot disclose a student’s private information without consent under FERPA.[xxxvii] An exception applies to directory information unless a student signs an opt out form. [xxxviii] Clearly, though, FERPA would safeguard a student’s report of domestic abuse as private, thereby limiting what an educator receiving such a report can do with that information.[xxxix]
The proper course of action would be for the educator to note indicators of abuse in the event the student contacts the educator for help. Without a direct request for help, the educator must be sure not to violate FERPA and school policies. While it would likely be permissible to post a general announcement in the classroom about different types of support services provided at the institution, it would not be proper to send an email to the student asking if the student is being abused and needs help. Being educated about what services are provided at your institution and how a student in need can access such services is important for all educators so that they can provide that information if a student asks for assistance. If and when a student in need contacts the educator, the faculty member will have information about services provided through the school and in the community readily available and can direct the student accordingly. Hopefully, this support will help the student personally and allow him/her to remain in school, receive a degree, find employment, and create a new, better life – one free from abuse.