How schools are teaching students about domestic violence and respect

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Louise Pascale

"There is a limited understanding of what domestic violence actually entails and what it means," says school counsellor ...

"There is a limited understanding of what domestic violence actually entails and what it means," says school counsellor Louiza Hebhardt. Photo: Stocksy

Right now, in a handful of Victorian High Schools, students are talking about Zoe and Sam. They are a fictional teenage couple that has sex at a party - however Zoe has not consented.

'She didn't say no', 'she didn't put up a fight', 'she was wearing a short dress' are the responses Curriculum Consultant Emma Hardley is hearing around the classroom.

"It is really interesting time and time again students overlook that (she did not consent)," Hardley said. "They are focusing on her behaviour, on what she did and did not do. They are making assumptions many adults make.

"A light bulb moment happens when we shift our focus from Zoe to Sam's behaviour. There they realise the focus in society when we talk about violence against women is about what the survivor did and did not do and not what the perpetrator did and did not do. "

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When Rosie Batty called on state leaders to introduce respectful relationship programs into the curriculum this is what she meant. Called Respectful Relationships, it is two units of eight lessons each with discussion, activities and group work. The first unit is about gender, respect and relationships taught to year eights while year nines have lessons on power and control.

But this is not all. With this model teachers are also given intensive training around these issues and the school's culture is examined through its policies, gender dynamics, even language in the staff room.

"The most important thing is that there is principal leadership, that the principal is one hundred per cent behind it and in fact driving it," she said. "If they are not driving it, it is hard to get the school community on board and it to be meaningful."

The classroom is also where the New South Wales government wants to start tackling domestic violence. As of next year, grades seven to ten will be taught what domestic violence is.

Louiza Hebhardt is a school counsellor who counsels both teachers and students. She has seen a lot students impacted by domestic violence and teachers who are ignorant to it.

"I've received on more than one occasion, from different teachers at different sites, a kind of sense of exasperation, frustration with the mother in particular," she said. "(They) comment along the lines of 'I just don't understand why she just doesn't leave if he is hitting her'.

"These comments tell me there is a limited understanding of what domestic violence actually entails and what it means. This lack of understanding around control that these women are under and that it may not necessarily be physical abuse."

While she believes teaching respectful relationships is necessary in schools she questions the priority it is given.

"You know you also need to fit in a certain amount of science, and a certain amount of English and a certain amount of Maths and a certain amount of all these other areas," said Hebhardt. "When and where is the time for this kind of important information to be taught?"

Schools who sign up for the Respectful Relationships program in Victoria do so voluntarily through Our Watch. So far around thirty out of Victoria's 2,226 schools have taken it on.

The Australian Childhood Foundation runs professional development for teachers working with children who have experienced trauma and domestic violence. CEO Joe Tucci says there are states like South Australia where close to 10,000 teachers have gone through their program compared to other states where it has not been a priority at all.

While he acknowledges teaching respectful relationships is necessary, he questions its effectiveness when adults - who children model their behaviour on - are not acting respectfully.

"If the outcome is we want children of this generation to learn to be more respectful adults as they get older, then what we need to do is make sure that the adults around them are engaging in respectful relationships between each other," he said.

While Hardley has seen the positive impact the Respectful Relationships program is having, she also knows that schools are a reflection of our society.

"Now, I doubt there's a single school in the State that doesn't drill the notion of respect into its students on a daily basis," she said. "Yet walking around on yard duty I've witnessed numerous counts of gender-based violence."

Hardley cites discovering year 11 boys throwing fruit at year eights girls because they 'liked them' only to discover they had coerced the girls into oral sex at a party.

"This sort of thing is incredibly confronting for a school to deal with, but these things do happen, and it's the way they deal with it that will largely determine whether that sort of behaviour happens again," she said.