A new state law taking effect in December sets minimum standards for how school districts teach middle school and high school kids about teen dating and family violence, child abuse, and sex trafficking.

But the law allows a parent or guardian to opt their child out of such education and only requires instruction at least once in middle or junior high school and at least once in high school. Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed similar legislation earlier this year because it did not include parental choice.

San Antonio City Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) filed three requests this month that could make these lessons mandatory for students in San Antonio and heighten awareness about domestic violence. Meanwhile, violence prevention experts say it’ll take more than the minimum two lessons to make a difference for young people learning to negotiate dating relationships.

One of Pelaez’s proposals would skirt the opt-out option.

“We have never heard any parents come forward and beg us to please not do anything about domestic violence — in fact, it’s the complete opposite,” Pelaez said. “You don’t get to opt out of Texas history, you don’t get to opt out of tough math, you don’t get to opt out of biology.”

Palaez’s proposals follow a period of increased family violence amid coronavirus pandemic lockdowns. Last year, at least 38 people in Bexar County died as a result of domestic violence — eight more than in 2019. Family violence victim advocates have said the need for knowledge of resources is even greater now.

In the U.S., nearly 9% of girls and about 7% of boys in high school report having experienced physical dating violence in the last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “About 1 in 8 female and 1 in 26 male high school students report having experienced sexual dating violence in the last year.”

“The one thing we know that works — and there’s no debate about it — is that if you tell more people about the red flags of domestic violence, sex trafficking, and date rape … then more people know about the resources [available to help] and more people know to watch out for it,” said Pelaez, who formerly served as general counsel for Family Violence Prevention Services. His mother, Marta Pelaez, serves as CEO of the agency and the women’s and children’s shelter in San Antonio.

Supported by at least four other council members, the first council consideration request Manny Pelaez submitted on the topic would require school districts and universities to provide age-appropriate lessons on teen dating and family violence, child abuse, and sex trafficking if they accept funding or in-kind support from the City of San Antonio.

“If you opt-in to be a partner with the city, well, then you got to go above the minimum set by the state,” Pelaez said, and most school districts and universities benefit from city programs or use city facilities in some way.

He expects there could be a legal challenge but is confident the local ordinance would be upheld.

“Cities can tighten up that regulation,” he said.

The “Fourth R”

At least the state law doesn’t require parents to opt in, said Jeff Temple, director of the University of Texas Medical Branch Center for Violence Prevention.

“We teach kids everything in school: sports, music, math, history, and science and on and on — but we don’t teach them the skill that really is foundational to human behavior … and that’s relationships,” Temple said.

The state law falls short of what students need to develop these skills, but it’s at least a start, he said.

“I don’t want perfect to be the enemy of good,” but hosting an assembly once every few years on dating violence isn’t effective, he said. “The higher the dose, the better the response.”

Enter the Fourth R curriculum, which adds relationships to the three basic “R’s” of school: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Developed in Canada, the Fourth R includes 21 lessons on injury prevention, substance use, and growth and development.

In a study published this month in the journal Pediatrics, Temple and other researchers found that middle school students who participated in the curriculum were less likely to report experiencing physical relationship abuse.

“Kids right now learn how to be in a relationship through mostly trial and error,” he said. “Conflicts are inevitable in relationships. In fact, I would say they’re healthy. How we resolve those is what matters — some couples do it terribly with violence and other couples do it healthily. We want to teach those kids how to do it in a healthy way.”

Kids should be able to recognize signs of a dangerous relationship that they or someone they know are experiencing, he said.

But it’s not just about violence prevention, he said. “Seventy percent of kids will never be in a violent relationship … but 100% of those kids will be in relationships. Why not equip them with how to be in a healthy, not just a nonviolent, relationship?”

Shouldn’t it be up to parents, as Abbott suggests, to talk to their kids about relationships?

“That’s a fair worry and criticism … that’s usually paired with ‘they should be taught that at home,'” Temple said.

But the problem is that it’s often either not taught at home or taught incorrectly, he said.

“The worst case scenario is that they’re better people, healthier people, with happier relationships,” he said. “We’d be naive to think that we can delay interest in dating … these things are biological as much as they are psychological. … Since they’re going to happen, we might as well make sure that happened in a healthy way.”

None of the school districts in San Antonio have adopted the full Fourth R curriculum, but elements of it exist in at least one pilot program and other curricula, said Jennifer Hixon, public health administrator for San Antonio Metropolitan Health District’s violence prevention division.

Last year, the city partnered with the YWCA San Antonio to implement Safe Dates, a curriculum available for schoolteachers, counselors, and administrators that focuses on teen dating violence prevention. Metro Health’s Project Worth program also works to promote the health and well-being among youths in San Antonio with a special focus on social and emotional development and healthy relationships. That work often takes place in schools, Hixon said.

“Parents don’t often know how to have these conversations or kids might not be in a safe place to hear those conversations from their parents,” Hixon said.

“There is a lot of work to be done on teen dating violence curricula in San Antonio, but … schools are trying to figure it out,” she said, while under various financial and political pressures exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I really feel for schools right now, trying to figure out how to do all the things they are being asked to do with fewer resources.”

‘Time for being subtle is over’

In 2020, 228 Texans were killed by a romantic partner — that’s a 23% increase from the year before. Seventeen of those fatalities occurred in Bexar County, a 31% increase from 13 homicides in 2019, according to a recent analysis by Texas Council on Family Violence.

The second ordinance that Pelaez suggests would require all places of public accommodation — such as bars, restaurants, concert venues, government buildings, hotels, convenience stores — to place signs in bathrooms that let people know about resources available for those experiencing domestic violence or sex trafficking.

“I just started looking at the millions of people coming through the Alamodome, the convention center, the libraries, or municipal court” as potential touchpoints for violence awareness and prevention, Pelaez said.

And often, a public bathroom is the only place a victim of domestic violence or sex trafficking has a chance to be alone, he said.

The city has been distributing small stickers that businesses and other groups can place around their facilities for a couple of years now, and there is signage in the San Antonio International Airport stalls, Hixon said.

These low-cost tactics could be just what a victim needs, she said, by “creating support without creating pressure to disclose.”

Posters aren’t going to eliminate domestic violence, but every little bit helps, Temple said. For youths especially, “it’s getting it on their radar that it’s not OK to feel unsafe in a relationship.”

Pelaez’s third suggestion is to infuse violence prevention messaging and resources throughout city departments, city agencies, and its partners — beyond the occasional press conference or awareness campaigns, he said.

“It’s time now for us to take that message everywhere, including [utility] bill inserts … attached to your paperwork you get at the municipal court — you should also receive a little sheet of paper that says, ‘If you’re a victim of domestic violence, here are some options.'”

Too often, messaging about domestic violence has been subtle, Pelaez said. “Maybe that’s just because of the nature of the message. And as the messengers, we want to kind of be gentle and compassionate. But I think the time for being subtle is over.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence or other abuse, call the local hotline at 210-733-8810 or the national hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233).

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org