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When we think about a social problem, the policies and practices in place in our organizations may not be our first thought. But organizational policies formally articulate our standards, and as such, they are a critical building block of a healthy organizational climate. This matters. Because teens spend most of their time in organizations (schools, youth groups, Boys and Girls Clubs, 4-H, etc.), and because they are the spaces where youth interact, teen dating violence (TDV) happens there. By preventing TDV within youth serving organizations, AND by creating broad buy-in for healthy relationships in those settings, we will reduce the prevalence of this social problem among teens.

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By implementing healthy relationship policies we are clearly establishing behavioral expectations; by sharing the policy with constituents—youth, parents and staff—we add a broad, collaborative base of support for those expectations; and by acting on the policy when we see problematic behaviors, we are reinforcing respectful relationships as an organizational norm. Because teens spend so much of their time in organizations, it is reasonable to believe that the norms established there will also strongly influence their thinking and behavior outside of those settings.

It’s more than just words

Many people think that policy is just words—words that frequently gather dust in a file cabinet rather than informing what goes on in organizations. There are strategies for creating great policies that “live in the air” rather than in the filing cabinet. And kids may not be able to actually recite an organizational policy, but they can probably tell you what expectations are, and what they think they can “get away with”. Schools are legally required by Title IX to implement policies and procedures that prevent and address sexual abuse and harassment (follow this link for a summary overview of students’ rights regarding sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights: http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/title-ix-rights-201104.pdf).

Other youth serving organizations may not have the same legal responsibility to enact such policies, but it is in all of our interest to promote safe, healthy and respectful environments. In addition to describing our behavioral expectations, organizational policies can guide our response to abusive behaviors including accommodations for victims and accountability for offenders. A good policy helps us to define the problem, to work to prevent it before it occurs, and to address early warning signs before abusive behaviors escalate.

How?

A well planned and implemented policy is more than just words, but it honestly isn’t rocket science. Folks who don’t have experience working with policy may find the very word frightening, but policy basically provides us with a map that describes our standards, how we will implement them, and what we will do when things go wrong. Whether advocating for policy, writing the language, or supporting the implementation, we can all take an active role in policy work.

Advocating for policy

How you get started in working to implement a healthy relationship policy will probably depend on your position. If you are in a decision making position within a youth serving organization, you may already be poised to jump in reviewing your existing policy and making recommendations. Most of us will need to do some advance work to secure buy-in for the adoption of strong organizational anti-harassment and abuse policies. The following points offer strategic advice to assist you in making that case.

  1. Evaluate the organizational environment.Strategies for this assessment might include reading organizational publications and asking key informants including teens, members of staff and parents. Prior to making the case for policy work, it makes sense to think about what’s going on in the organization that you’d like to work with. This approach will help you to identify possible opportunities, barriers and potential allies.
    • What are the organization’s protocols, priorities, challenges, strengths?
    • Is this a crazy time in their calendar?
  2. Determine what individuals or groups you must persuade.Determining the key stakeholders will help you to frame an effective case.
    • Who makes policy decisions for your organization?
    • If this organization is a branch of a national organization, are they empowered to create a local policy?
    • What voices are best poised to influence those you seek to persuade?
  3. Identify key allies. Broad-based support is most effective for any initiative. Who can help you to make this case?
    • Organizational allies
    • Youth members
    • Parents
    • Other invested members of your broader community—domestic and sexual violence prevention programs, members of your domestic violence task force, etc.
  4. Make your case.
    • Schedule a meeting with key organizational decision makers
    • Use information from your environmental scan to tailor your discussion of the problem and solutions to your organization

Developing and implementing policy

When you’ve secured the necessary buy-in and are prepared to review your organizational policies and procedures, you may decide that it makes the most sense to adapt your existing policy, or to build a new one from the ground up. But you don’t need to start from scratch. There are many existing policy models available that can help to guide your thinking as you form a policy that meets your needs. Schools have led the way in the development of healthy relationship policies so most existing models were developed for that environment. But the standards of effective policies used in schools can be modified for use in other youth serving organizations. Here are some suggestions for policy review and development.

    1. Convene a group of stakeholders. In order to form policy that is relevant and feasible, it is critical to invite participation from folks who know what is going on. This will be most effective if you include representation from across the organization including members of staff, administration, youth and parents.

  1. Consider your environment.How would you characterize the social norm for interactions between youth in your organization? Possible sources might include organizational disciplinary records, focus group conversations or interviews with key informants.
    • What are organizational strengths and protections that you can enhance? Who’s modeling healthy behaviors? Who are effective peer leaders?
    • What problematic behaviors are you seeing/hearing about? Verbal harassment? Sexual harassment? Physical abuse?
  2. Reviewing existing policy, procedures and practices.
    • Does our policy meet our needs?
    • Is it consistently applied across the organization?
  3. Review model policy guidelines.The national Start Strong teen dating violence prevention project has identified core elements of a comprehensive TDV prevention policy for schools. A description of each of those elements, with links to resources that can help with implementation are provided below.5. Prioritize feasible changes for your organization.
    • Determine who is responsible for implementation
    • Establish an implementation timeline
  4. Evaluate your progress.
    • Determine a process and date for reviewing your progress
      • Did we implement the new policies and practices that we planned?
      • Are we seeing the behavioral and environmental changes that we sought?
        • If yes, how will we sustain this success?
        • If not, did we implement our new standards?
          • Are they consistently applied across the organization?
          • Is it feasible to add new points of intervention or support?
          • Who else can help us to secure buy-in?

The following information from the national Start Strong TDV prevention program describes the core elements of a comprehensive TDV prevention policy and provides resources to support the implementation of those elements. Though designed with a focus on the legal and educational parameters of the school setting, these components can be adapted for other youth serving organizations.