Harper students provide realistic look at domestic violence
When he became a police officer in 1972, Michael B. Alsup didn't receive much formal training about domestic violence.
"Back then it was called wife-beating," says Alsup, 61, who has been chief of police at Harper College in Palatine since 2000 and has spent much of the last 30 years becoming a recognized leader in the field of domestic violence. As chairman of the college and university section for the International Association of Chiefs of Police and president of the North Suburban Association of Chiefs of Police, Alsup is turning to students at Harper to help him educate the public and prevent such crimes.
Working with Alsup and suburban domestic violence shelters and social workers, students in the Harper Theater Club voluntarily recorded short videos designed to be shown to high school students to explain dating violence, the emotional abuse that can happen in relationships and the often subtle ways those problems arise.
"Obviously it's not a good feeling to be the abuser," says 21-year-old Danny Quinlan of Barrington, the actor who plays a controlling and aggressive boyfriend. "I didn't like having to be like that, but it was necessary to get the point across."
The seriousness of an abusive relationship hits home with fellow performers Maya Abujaffar and Noreen Patel, who live in Hoffman Estates and were students at Conant High School in 2009 when senior Laura Engelhardt was stabbed to death along with her father and grandmother in their home. The boyfriend of Laura's sister faces murder charges in those slayings.
"I still remember the moment we heard," says Abujaffar, 19, recalling how the principal announced Laura's death during seventh period. "Everyone went silent."
Playing the victim in the Harper students' film, Abujaffar says she hopes the videos encourage kids to speak out.
"They think it will never happen to them," Abujaffar says. "It happens so much and people don't know about it."
Patel, who plays the protective big sister to Abujaffar's character in the videos, says it happened to her. She says a male student stalked her and eventually threatened her.
"I don't ever want anyone I know to feel like that," Patel says. She credits her real-life friendship with Abujaffar for helping her through that situation.
Those experiences help make the videos powerful, says Kevin Long, Harper's director of theater and sponsor of the Theater Club.
"They are so invested in this," Long says. Working from an outline provided by Courtney Schaefer and Rachel Rozynek of the Northwest Center Against Sexual Assault, headquartered in Arlington Heights, the students improvised much of the dialogue.
"These kids took the language into exactly what kids would say in this situation," Long says. "That's why they feel so strongly connected to it."
The video, recorded by Harper's award-winning media productions coordinator Tom Knoff, still needs some voice-overs and other final touches but drew praise when it was shown during a Domestic Violence Awareness Month conference last week at Harper.
"It really captures a lot of what we want our audience to recognize as an example of a domestic violence relationships," notes Schaefer, a medical and legal advocate with the Northwest Center Against Sexual Assault. The videos show that abuse doesn't have to be physical.
"The early signs — 'Hey, I love you so much. You don't need anybody but me' —" are indicative of the "power and control" used by abusers, says Rebecca Darr, executive director of WINGS, or Women In Need Growing Stronger, the Palatine-based not-for-profit agency offering shelter, support, educational and job services to women and children affected by domestic violence and homelessness. With one in four girls being victims of abuse and 40 percent of police calls involving relationship issues, Darr says she hopes the videos explain how abuse can escalate.
"It's really that pattern we want them to see, not only for the victims but for the abusers," Darr says. "What sometimes happens is the abuser doesn't realize he's abusive."
While Harper doesn't have the environment of a four-year college with parties and students on campus 24 hours a day, the 40,000 students who take classes there still face domestic violence issues, Alsup says.
"We see more and more orders of protection every year," the chief says. "It's a big part of what we do."
Several suburban high schools also are preparing videos as part of a contest to highlight the dangers of abusive relationships, Darr says. Anything that helps spread the word, including making sure police officers know how to recognize and deal with domestic violence, needs to be part of the plan, Alsup says.
"One in four women going through a college is sexually assaulted. Fewer than 5 percent report it," Alsup says. "These are things that need to change."
The video lists resources in the suburbs, including Community Crisis Center in Elgin and its (847) 697-2380 crisis line, WINGS and its (847) 221-5680 hotline, and NWCASA and its (888) 802-8890 hotline, as well as the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (888) 799-SAFE (7233).
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