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Essex NCJW updates video on dating abuse awareness
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Essex NCJW updates video on dating abuse awareness

A new program reflects potential for danger in the cell phone era

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

National Council of Jewish Women, Essex County Section, has updated a video on teen dating abuse for the cell phone era and to remind viewers that boys too can be victims of abusive relationships.

The new video, Crossing the Line, was unveiled at Columbia High School in Maplewood on May 30. The audience of about 50 people included NCJW volunteers and board members, the video’s director, and extras from the high school who appeared in the movie. CHS is part of the Maplewood and South Orange school district.

The updated educational video, to be used in classrooms across Essex County, is the centerpiece of a teen dating abuse program first developed by the NCJW section in 1992 and used in schools all over the county. Screenings are part of a two-day curriculum taught by trained NCJW volunteers.

The new video was paid for by a $50,000 grant from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey.

“The video is supposed to lead into a discussion” among students in the classroom about teen dating violence, said NCJW section president Jill Johnson. “Hopefully, it’s a springboard for productive conversation.”

The video is a revision of Matters of Choice, which NCJW created nine years ago. Much of the original material was reused, though with new actors. The new version reflects how cell phones and texting have become an integral part of teenage life.

The plot focuses on Megan, a teen athlete who starts dating Matt, a fellow student. After a “honeymoon” period, the relationship devolves as Matt grows more and more controlling. A subplot includes a male friend of Megan’s who is in a relationship with a girl who controls him through constant texting.

According to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, one in three adolescents who has been in a dating relationship has experienced verbal or physical abuse from a dating partner.

The video touches on more nuanced aspects of abusive relationships that can be particularly relevant to young people in the suburbs.

“New to the dynamics of dating, most teens are naive to the subtle signs of abuse, making them particularly vulnerable,” said Diane Beni, cochair of the video production for Essex NCJW. “Far beyond the overt slap, abuse is about gaining control through verbal, emotional, or physical means, and all are equally damaging.”

Deirdre Fishel of Mind’s Eye Productions, who directed both Matters of Choice and Crossing the Line, said that updating the original video provided her with a “rare” chance to tweak certain aspects of the original that didn’t work as conceived.

“It was humbling to see that some of our choices were not the best,” she said.

Among those was giving the main character a “weak” personality.

“The message kids took away was that abusive relationships happen only to weak girls, and that’s not what the evidence shows.”

Revising the video, she said, provided a “wonderful opportunity” to make the lead character stronger.

Megan, the new lead, is a lacrosse player and a girl with strong opinions.

The addition of the subplot is meant to underscore the message that teenage boys can also be victimized, Fishel said.

Preparations for the new film began a year ago, with focus groups and conversations with students and teachers about the original film and what changes they would like to see. “The pre-work was harder than the actual filming,” said Johnson.

“Learning about dating abuse has definitely affected my thinking in a positive way,” said Jane Mousseau, a senior at Columbia High School and copresident of its Teen Dating Abuse Club, in a prepared statement. “I now want everyone to realize their own self-worth and know that tolerating dating abuse as a victim, perpetrator, or witness is never an option.” Mousseau is a trained TDA program presenter who has been presenting to middle school students for three years.

CHS student Nash Collings-Miller said her participation as an extra taught her “that this could happen anywhere and anytime to anyone.”

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