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Hot on Campus | October 23, 2012

Dating violence in the spotlight


Campus awareness campaigns urge women to speak up about abuse

Alexandra Kogut and Clayton Whittemore (Photo via Facebook)

Alexandra Kogut's last argument with her boyfriend, Clayton Whittemore, began with a few shoves. When Whittemore started pummeling her with his fists, Kogut was quickly overwhelmed. As she lay on the floor, her breath forced and irregular, Whittemore landed a final blow with a curling iron, until she made no noise at all. The argument was petty, Whittemore later told police. But the result was devastating.

Kogut, a freshman at the State University of New York College at Brockport, died Sept. 29, becoming the latest high profile victim of relationship violence. For national and campus organizations that work to prevent dating abuse, the tragedy served as a grim reminder that awareness efforts are far from complete. But education and dating violence prevention efforts are gaining ground on campus as cases like Kogut's underscore the reality that no one is immune.

The Liz Claiborne Inc.'s Love Is Not Abuse 2011 College Dating Violence and Abuse Poll found that 43 percent of college women in dating relationships experienced various forms of abuse. Another 52 percent said they knew a friend who also endured abuse, including physical, verbal and sexual attacks, as well as controlling behaviors.

October is Dating and Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but organizations like the One Love Foundation strive to make relationship abuse known throughout the year. The Foundation exists to honor Yeardley Love, a victim of dating violence who died in 2010, during her senior year of college.

Experts suggest that a lack of dialogue contributes to the problem, as relationship violence tends to be a taboo subject, said Kim Ward, chairwoman of the One Love Foundation's national advisory board. It's a topic people are "colossally embarrassed about," because no smart or successful woman wants to admit she's been a victim of relationship violence, Ward said.

"Nobody is too smart for it. I don't want anyone, no matter how smart they are, to feel embarrassed," she said. "I want them to have a way out and feel empowered."

Many prevention efforts target high school students. But college is a crucial time to be aware of the facts, as students often meet their future spouses while at a university, Ward said.

Campus organizations are becoming more involved in education efforts and have initiated programs to remind students of the dangers that can accompany romantic relationships. Earlier this month, the University of Texas at Austin held an event called "Save This Seat," which honored women who lost their lives to relationship violence. Participants placed signs containing the women's stories on empty classroom seats.

The program was effective because of the way it personalized the victims, said Kenera Colley, a sophomore at UT. Although the victims' were close to the students in age, dating violence could happen to anyone, regardless of age, sex, race or other factors, she said.

Colley launched a student organization last year called Breaking the Silence, which helped coordinate "Save This Seat." Breaking the Silence educates students about relationship violence and also reassures victims that the abuse is not their fault, she said.

The One Love Foundation recently launched its Be 1 for Change campaign, a long-term initiative to combat relationship violence through awareness tools and materials. The organization recruited the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing to develop a free and anonymous mobile application that serves as a danger assessment tool. The quiz-like format helps women determine whether they're in a potentially dangerous relationship. Questions cover a variety of topics including the frequency of physical violence and history of alcohol abuse.

Tina Bloom, assistant professor of nursing and violence researcher at the University of Missouri, joined the team of researchers who developed the mobile app. The assessment is geared towards women in relationships and also their friends, so everyone is equipped to help themselves and others out of detrimental situations, Bloom said.

"I think we have to present information and resources in ways that are usable to people," Bloom said. "It's silly to put out a pamphlet or book when everyone is on their phones. We're trying to make it appropriate for the way that they like to learn."

At Kogut's funeral, purple ribbons hung draped in the trees, reminding mourners of domestic violence awareness efforts. Her godfather, Victor Gerace, read a statement on behalf of her parents, describing Kogut as a happy and optimistic young woman: "Some people never achieve the happiness she had."

After her death, friends described Kogut and Whittemore as devoted to one another. Kogut never told anyone her boyfriend was abusive. As a young woman aware of the dangers of relationship violence, Colley urges victims to reach out to others in the recovery process. It's not a burden anyone should carry alone, she said: "Talk to somebody. Talk to anybody."