Alberta has high rates of family abuse but issues aren't part of core school curriculum

city vaw EDAlberta has one of the highest domestic violence rates in Canada. But discussions about domestic violence aren't mandatory in schools – even though some experts say they should be.

According to the most recent Statistics Canada reports available, Alberta had the second highest provincial rate of self-reported violent victimization of women in 2009. And, in 2010, it had the third highest rate of family violence among the provinces.

Experts interviewed believe domestic violence can be reduced by educating youth – changing their attitudes and perceptions about healthy relationships and violence against women.

Learning left to teacher's discretion

However, in Alberta, issues of domestic violence and violence against women are only potentially offered as part of the official school curriculum at one point: the Career and Life Management program in Grade 10. Even then, these topics may not be covered.

Although a request for an interview about the issue was declined, Alberta Education clarified in an email: "Decisions to include specific topics such as violence against women and attitudes against women would be the responsibility of the teacher as they would know their local context best."

An interview could not be arranged with the Calgary School Board to discuss the frequency in which teachers choose to include this topic in the CALM course.

But Lana Wells, the Brenda Strafford Chair in the Prevention of Domestic Violence at the University of Calgary Faculty of Social Work, said six school jurisdictions out of 62 in Alberta – including Calgary's – have implemented a program outside the official curriculum that deals with such issues.

Outside programs help students

The program is called the "Fourth R" – standing for relationships – and it teaches students about communications and relationship health.

"We need to be better investing in children and youth's emotional and social intelligence and healthy relationship skills," said Wells. "If you don't come from a home that teaches you how to be in healthy relationships and models it, you learn from where you live."

Anuradha Dugal, the director of Violence Prevention Programs at the Canadian Women's Foundation – which funds Fourth R – said she thinks "all violence should be openly discussed in schools. It has to be appropriate for the level and age of the young people you're speaking to, and I think that's what frightens people."

In addition, Dugal says the programs are "never designed to point the finger at boys and say men are the problem."

"I think that's a very important point because some programs, if they seem blaming, can backfire quite seriously and actually create more negative attitudes towards women than previously existed."

The results from implementing these programs into schools over a period of time have been dramatic, according to Dugal.

The main changes were improved student attitudes toward women's equality, the belief that dating relationships should be based on mutual respect and the need to share the power and the decision-making.

Stopping violence at the source

But Wells said the kinds of topics covered in the Fourth R should be part of the core curriculum and be made mandatory.

"What's happening is its being left up to the individual level and often (teachers) aren't even getting their 50 hours of sexual health education, let alone the other parts," said Wells. "There's so much content for them to cover around the other topic areas.

"We believe we need it from K-12, there needs to be a strategy that's developmentally appropriate all the through," said Wells. "All the way to postsecondary education, and hopefully 0-6 as well, right in the home."

Dugal couldn't agree more.

"The prevention cycle needs to start very early," she said. "There are programs in schools that start as early as Kindergarten to talk about healthy communication. And I think that's the foundation on which other programs can subsequently build."

Getting everyone on board

But Scharie Tavcer, an associate professor for the Department of Justice Studies at Mount Royal University, notes it could be difficult to include domestic violence and violence against women as part of the core school curriculum.

"People are so hesitant to allow government or schools to teach their kids, to tell them how to parent," said Tavcer.

As a result, the justice studies professor said, "I think what might help is getting parents on board, educating them on the bigger picture of why this is important and what exactly their kids will be taught so that they won't be so afraid and fearful of all the bad things their kids will learn or hear, or (have the mentality of) 'I don't want to expose my kid to that kind of stuff.'"

According to Dugal, "Young men perhaps aren't challenged early enough about their behavior, and aren't brought into the idea that this is not acceptable behavior. Whether it's learned or whether it's part of the attitudes of a society or community or family, young men learn that it's OK to treat women badly. And it's our responsibility as a community, socially but also professionally, to challenge that, to say it's not OK."

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