Domestic Violence: An Important Social Issue for Schools
Domestic violence An important social issue for schools
Megan Cousins Social worker 0
Avondale Retirement Village 0
0 Melinda Callary Social work student, Charles Sturt University , NSW
Teachers and school communities can have a
positive impact on the lives of students who
live in homes where domestic violence occurs.
By understanding the dynamics involved and
the impacts of domestic violence on children
and young people, teachers and schools will
be better equipped to deal with this important
“Any pattern Domestic violence is not a new social issue. Studies
of behaviour estimate that 23% of Australian women who are
that is used married or live in a defacto relationship have been
to dominate exposed to domestic violence at some point in the
or control relationship (ABS, 1996). Even more disturbing
another, most is that 61% of women who reported violence by a
commonly by present partner also reported having children in their
inducing fear, care
(ABS, 1996; Laing, 2000)
. Internationally, it
is domestic is estimated that one in three to one in ten families
violence and experience domestic violence
”unless physical abuse is extended towards them.
constitutes Mistakenly, there is a widespread belief that if
abuse a child or young person lives in a household where
domestic violence exists, they are not harmed
This assumption is incorrect and it ignores the
devastating effects that can occur when children are
exposed to such violence
(Laing, 2000; Tomison,
Domestic violence: What is it really?
Domestic violence does not just include physical
assault. In fact, physical assault usually only
occurs late in the cycle of violence and in some
circumstances partners have never actually
physically assaulted their spouse. To understand the
impact that domestic violence can have on children,
young people and women, in the absence of physical
assault, it is important to note that domestic violence
is essentially about power and control.
An abuse of power perpetrated mainly (but not
always) by men against women in a relationship
and after separation. It occurs when one
partner attempts physically or psychologically to
dominate and control the other. Domestic violence
takes a number of forms. The most commonly
acknowledged forms are physical and sexual
violence, threats and intimidation, emotional and
social abuse and economic deprivation. (Bullen,
2003, p. 25)
This means that domestic violence includes
physical violence such as hitting, punching, choking,
kicking, inflicting burns or using weapons. However,
it can also incorporate being raped, being forced to
perform humiliating acts during sex (sexual abuse),
having to beg for money for basic necessities,
withholding money or assets (economic abuse),
limiting a partner’s ability to access and spend
time with friends and family, constant questioning
about where a partner has been (social abuse),
belittling and humiliating, threatening violence and
intimidating behaviour (psychological abuse). In
essence, any pattern of behaviour that is used to
dominate and control another, most commonly by
inducing fear, is domestic violence and constitutes
Domestic violence as a gendered crime
It is impossible to understand the impact of
domestic violence and ways to combat it unless we
acknowledge that this is usually a gendered crime
where the majority of perpetrators are men
2003; James, 1996; Tomison, 2000; Weeks, 2000)
Despite its explosive nature, men are often not
afraid of women’s violence and may mock and
laugh at their wives’ aggression…Women, however
do fear male violence. Apparently, it is clear to
many men that they are ultimately in control, even
when their wives are violent…While violent women
experience themselves as out of control, violent
men experience themselves as asserting the
ultimate control over their partners. (James, 1996,
Thus, domestic violence is not an anger
management issue as is often mistakenly believed.
Domestic violence is violence that is used by
someone who is in control of his or her anger and
uses a pattern of behaviour to extend power over
another in an intimate relationship and is more
often used by men in this context
For example, a man who shuts every window in
the house so that his neighbours do not hear him
assaulting his wife, would demonstrate that he is
in control of his anger and is deliberately using his
physical strength to control his wife’s future actions,
and thus would be guilty of domestic violence.
However, if this same wife hit back at her partner to
protect herself or hit back in anger and frustration
at her mistreatment, she would not be guilty of
perpetrating domestic violence.
asserts that domestic violence is
a gendered crime due to underlying beliefs in wider
society that see men in a position of entitlement.
Widespread gender inequality still exists and is
often seen as normal or viewed as acceptable.
This is evidenced when men are seen as the head
of the home and entitled to extend control over
other family members
or when bullying is overlooked
when perpetrated by men and boys as it is seen as
‘normal’ behaviour and as a masculine trait
Christians and domestic violence
Christian families in Christian schools are not
immune to experiencing domestic violence or other
forms of abuse. We know that domestic violence
transcends the boundaries of economic status,
religious beliefs and cultural background.
In fact, Christianity can increase the likelihood
that women and children will experience violence
from a partner, as historically, the church has viewed
women and children as subordinate
1986; Ranke-Heinemann, 1991)
, and even now,
women are not viewed as equal in many of the
church structures. Oppressive behaviour towards
women is usually justified by Biblical passages such
as Ephesians 5:22–24, often with instruction by Paul
in verse 25 for husbands to love their wives as Christ
loved the church being forgotten or neglected.
The importance of the nuclear family within
western Christian communities means that attitudes
towards the marital relationship can see the marital
relationship valued above the wellbeing and ultimate
safety of women and children. These beliefs can
expect women and children to remain in an abusive
relationship no matter what the circumstances or
(Livingstone, 2002; Wendt, 2008)
Even the more liberal Christian leaders and
communities often misunderstand the dynamics of
domestic violence; believing only physical violence
constitutes abuse and thus gives reason to separate
from a spouse. Most underestimate the huge impact
and devastating effects that non-physical forms of
domestic violence can have on women, children,
young people and even the men who abuse.
Effects of domestic violence on children and
The effects of exposure to domestic violence on
children and young people are often brought to the
forefront at school. Domestic violence can have
a range of effects from decreased educational
performance and behavioural problems towards
teachers and other students, to internalised and
(Johnson et al., 2002;
Kitzmann et al., 2003; Laing, 2000; Tomison, 2000)
states that children and young
people who live with domestic violence, consistently
display a range of behavioural and emotional
problems when compared to children who do not live
with domestic violence. These include aggression,
acting out, antisocial type behaviour, depression
and / or anxiety
(Humphreys, 2007; Johnson et al.,
2002; Laing, 2000; Tomison, 2000)
. It is important
to point out that depression and anxiety are often
overlooked in school settings, as they may not
present behaviour management problems in the
classroom or the playground (Laing, 2000).
Longer-term implications of exposure to
domestic violence can be profound. Children
learn from the behaviours displayed at home, with
exposure to domestic violence being a strong
indicator of violence in adolescence and adulthood.
Witnessing domestic violence teaches children
that violence is an acceptable means of conflict
resolution and is part of family relationships
. Furthermore, since perpetrators
often avoid punishment or consequences, children
may interpret violence as an acceptable way to
control or manipulate people
addition, witnessing domestic violence as a child
increases the likelihood that the child will form adult
relationships that are violent. Boys who observe
a male parent / caregiver perpetrating domestic
violence have an increased likelihood of becoming
perpetrators themselves in adulthood.
It is imperative that teachers never underestimate
the impact of domestic violence, as outsiders are
never able to ascertain the full extent of any given
situation. For example, just because a child or
young person does not witness the violence being
extended towards the mother does not mean that the
child or young person does not hear the screams,
hear the destruction, see weapons in the home or
cognitively understand how these are used. The
impact on a child living in an environment where
tension exists, where intimidation and control are
continually exerted, where isolation is likely and
and is part
to shift the
from ‘why a
to ‘why a
of a family’
12 | TEACH | v3 n1
where the likelihood of other abuse occurring to the
child is increased should never be minimised, and
should always be taken seriously
Laing, 2000; Tomison, 2000)
It is important to flag that not all children or
young people are affected in the same way and that
there is a danger of over-pathologising
. Some children and young people do manage
relatively well living in a traumatic environment.
The discrepancy is often attributed to differences
in severity and contexts within which children and
young people live
(Humphreys, 2007; Laing, 2000)
Why women don’t leave
The reality is that women do leave violent
relationships; however, significant barriers make
leaving difficult. The biggest barrier is that leaving
is often the most dangerous time for a woman
and her children
reports that 76% of homicides related to
domestic violence occurred at a time that involved
separation. Studies show that the time of separation
is a time where violence and sexual assault increase
Other reasons that women stay in violent
relationships may include limited access to money or
resources that would enable a woman to leave, low
self-esteem, perceived dependence due to years of
abuse, social stigma, questions about the custody
of the children, and feelings of powerlessness
(Humphreys, 2007; Laing, 2000)
suggests that communities need
to shift the focus away from ‘why a mother does
not leave’ to, ‘why a man uses violence which
harms all members of a family’
(Laing, 2000, p
. The underlying belief that women are primarily
responsible for the welfare of children and for family
difficulties also needs to be challenged
. This belief actually aids and condones violent
behaviour and renders invisible perpetrators of such
(Laing, 2000; Weeks, 2000)
”Recognising signs that a child may be
exposed to domestic violence at home
Children respond to domestic violence in different
ways, with some appearing relatively unaffected
and others displaying a range of psychopathology
or adjustment issues (Horner, 2005). Generally,
the impact of domestic violence on a child will
vary according to the child’s developmental level,
the frequency and severity of the violence, the
availability of the mother or other support and the
relationship of the perpetrator to the child
al., 2002; Horner, 2005; Osofsky, 1995)
Some indicators that a child is experiencing
domestic violence may include:
• Frequent or extreme anger for no apparent
reason, or anger that does not match the
severity of the situation. Children are rarely
angry for no reason; however, their anger may
be expressed at a superficial cause;
• Sadness or depression;
• Avoiding going home, spending extended
hours at school or at friends’ homes;
• Lack of concentration at school;
• Constant tiredness in the classroom;
• Attempts to intimidate or control other students
or teachers (bullying behaviour);
• Physical injuries;
• Changes in behaviour;
• Difficulty focusing on tasks in the classroom;
• Constant worrying over the safety of people
they are close to;
• Withdrawal from friends and activities;
• Complaining of vague somatic symptoms such
as stomach ache or headache;
• Strong stereotyped beliefs of masculinity
(aggressor) and femininity (weak / victim).
(Baker et al., 2002; Horner, 2005; Osofsky, 1995)
Adolescents may display behaviours that
reflect their feelings of rage, shame, betrayal and
powerlessness. These are often manifested in
rebellious ‘high risk’ behaviours such as:
• High levels of aggression;
• Criminal activities;
• Alcohol and illicit drug abuse;
• Truancy and / or leaving the home;
• Dating violence;
• Suicidal thoughts.
(Baker et al., 2002; Horner, 2005)
It is important to note that these indicators are
general and may indicate the student is experiencing
other problems such as separation of parents or
other types of trauma. Therefore, it is important not
to assume what is happening but to either speak
with the student or refer them to someone, such as a
school counsellor, who may be able to assist.
What should teachers do if they suspect a
student is experiencing domestic violence?
Teachers, as primary caregivers, are in a unique
position to assist with identifying students who are
experiencing domestic violence and in offering
appropriate interventions and referrals to services
that can minimise the impact of domestic violence on
the student (Horner, 2005).
Every context will be different and appropriate
action will depend on the signs the teacher notices,
the student’s age and behaviour, the relationship
the teacher has with that student and the particular
skills of the teacher. However, if a teacher suspects
something is not right for the student, it is generally
acceptable to talk to the student and ask what
is troubling them. Genuine concern and a safe
environment (private space) will make it more likely
a student will disclose abuse (if this is happening for
them). Keep in mind that the student may not reveal
the situation the first time you speak with them; let
them know that if they need to talk in the future, you
Given the dynamics of domestic violence and the
fear that goes with it, it is important that the student
feels you are not only a safe person to tell but that
you will be able to deal with the information they
disclose in a way that is respectful, non-judgemental
and that will not put them in danger.
Teachers need to be upfront and explain that
there are times when information must be shared
with others. Mandatory reporting requirements /
obligations vary across States and Territories so it
is important that teachers contact their governing
body to determine their legal obligations and
responsibilities in accordance with each State /
Territory’s legal requirements. Teachers will also be
guided by school policy guidelines.
Finding out that a child is experiencing domestic
violence at home can leave teachers feeling an
overwhelming need to save the child from the
situation. However, it is not the teacher’s role to end
the violence or conduct any investigations into the
Supporting the student
Despite not being able to stop the violence, the
teacher’s role is vital in promoting healing in the
student. A willingness to listen to a student’s story
without judgement can offer a sanctuary where
resiliency and personal strength can begin to be
reconstructed. One of the most important ways
teachers can offer assistance is to provide a safe
and supportive place for the student to openly
discuss their fears
Teachers may feel that the school counsellor is
best equipped to deal with supporting a student who
discloses they are experiencing domestic violence
and referring the student to the school counsellor
is often a good option. If a student discloses
abuse, the best course of action is to consult a
professional who is trained to deal with these
suggests that teachers can
support the child by:
• Being aware that students feel they have no
power to control the situation. Increasing their
sense of control by offering some choices in
the classroom can build their sense of security
• Allowing alternative ways for children to
• Encouraging cooperation and participation and
minimising the use of competition.
• Modelling non-violent and pro-social
behaviours in the classroom and pointing
out strategies for problem solving that do not
• Rejecting the use of fear or punitive
punishments as disciplinary measures.
Below are some suggestions based on my own
experience of working with those living in situations
of domestic violence or other forms of abuse. (Since
each context is different, these suggestions should
be used as a guide only.)
• Respect the information the student has given
you and do not tell those who do not need
to know; however, secrecy on behalf of the
teacher does not aid in ‘helping’ the student.
Appropriate ‘others’ will need to be told /
consulted according to your school’s policies
and procedures and legislative requirements.
• Depending on the student’s age and maturity,
let them know what you need to do with
the information they have given you (eg.
mandatory reporting). This shows respect and
will ultimately build trust.
• Ask the student what they would like to see
happen; however, do not make promises you
cannot keep. The student may discover that
simply sharing this ‘secret’ is enough for now.
• Do not feel you have to ‘rescue’ the student
or stop the abuse. Never underestimate the
power of a student being able to ‘just talk’ to
someone who does not judge.
• Always re-enforce that violence or abuse is not
• If you feel comfortable enough, discuss a
safety plan with the child or enlist other members
of staff, such as a welfare or social worker, to
assist you and the student in making the plan.
• Offer to link them in with the school counsellor.
If your school does not have one, find out what
is available in your community (contact the
Department of Community Services).
• Address practical issues, you may be able to
arrange a ‘tension free’ place to study.
• Use your judgement to make allowances
regarding extensions for assignments.
• Ensure your school has a zero tolerance
to bullying and address bullying at school
appropriately. Do not dismiss bullying as
‘typical masculine behaviour’.
• Never approach the parents, particularly
the offending parent without consulting
a trained professional as this could place
your student and the partner in greater
Domestic violence will be present in the lives of
some of the students at your school. Therefore, it is
vital that teachers be able to recognise and respond
to domestic violence in ways that will assist in the
protection of students and enhance their ability to
learn and reach their full potential. TEACH
you will be
able to deal
in a way that
and that will
not put them
This article is not intended to provide case
specific advice or take the place of professional
advice. Readers are advised to consult a qualified
professional regarding specific responses to
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