GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — At a lunch table at Absegami High School, members of the field hockey team were color-coordinated, but it wasn’t because of their uniform.
The teammates were participating in Wear Purple Wednesday to support Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
Teachers hope the event, held every Wednesday through October, will spur a conversation in the school on teen dating violence and how to get help or help someone else.
“It’s just as bad an epidemic as drugs, bullying. It has the same results: death,” said school psychologist Katie Taylor.
The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines teen dating violence as “as the physical, sexual, psychological or emotional violence within a dating relationship, including stalking. It can occur in person or electronically and might occur between a current or former dating partner.”
Taylor said she deals with one or two cases of teen dating violence a year, but she thinks much more goes unreported. A 2013 CDC survey of teen risk behavior found 10 percent of dating teens had experienced violence from a partner in the year prior to taking the survey.
The survey showed girls experienced violence at a higher rate than male students, and that female students in 10th and 12th grades were more exposed than those in ninth and 11th grades.
State legislation passed in 2011 requires school districts to approve a policy to prevent, respond to and educate their students about dating violence.
Health and physical education teacher Meghan Tracey has been incorporating lessons on domestic violence into the classroom for a number of years. She said some students come in knowing nothing about the subject, but others are obviously affected by it in some form.
“Some of them, you can tell by the questions that they ask that they are exposed to it,” Tracey said of her students.
Tracey said the expansion of technology — via text messages, social media and SnapChat — has made teen dating violence harder to escape.
“Now there’s just so many more ways to abuse,” Tracey said.
Field hockey team member Helena Aklilu, 17, of Galloway Township, said she was particularly moved by a presentation at the school a few years ago from former USA Women’s Soccer Team member Jillian Loyden, of Vineland, whose sister died in a domestic-violence incident.
“It showed us that domestic violence is a thing,” Aklilu said. “People are starting to date now, and they should be aware of how they should be treated.”
Francis Halsted, 17, of Galloway, was one of only a few male students wearing purple this week.
“I don’t think anyone should really get hit,” Halsted said of why he wants to support Wear Purple Day. “I think it’s important to teach kids when they’re young, so it doesn’t happen when they’re older.”
Experts agree that addressing dating and domestic violence with youth is one way to reduce domestic violence in adults.
Taylor said it’s especially important to send a message to kids who are already experiencing or witnessing that violence at home.
“If it happens at home, it’s already being modeled. It becomes a norm,” Taylor said.
Tracey said she tries to teach her students to recognize all the signs of violence or abuse — what may not necessarily be physical violence but instead attempts to control another person through whom they speak to, how they dress and where they go.
Taylor said the students also learn how to help friends who may be experiencing dating violence.
“They can step in and say, ‘This isn’t right. This isn’t OK,’” she said. “If they get them help, it would help break the cycle.”