This story is part of “Love Don’t Live Here” Word In Black’s series about how domestic violence impacts our community and what we can do about it. Trigger Warning: These stories contain mention of domestic violence and abuse.
Over the past few decades, celebrity accounts of domestic violence have run through televised news and talk shows, pop culture magazines, internet blogs, social media, and radio station programs.
From watching the horrors of Ike and Tina Turner’s tumultuous relationship in “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” to witnessing the sad recurring trend of violence playing out in the public relationship of current social influencers — like rapper Blueface and his girlfriend Crisean Rock — our children may be exposed to domestic violence in a multitude of ways.
Sometimes, they see this violence — physical, mental, emotional, financial, and other types of abuse — at home. Researchers have estimated up to 10 million American children are exposed to adult domestic violence every year, which has a direct effect on their’ academic performance.
And, research published in March 2021 in the International Journal of Research and Public Health found that “Approximately half (41.7%) of US Black women, including Caribbean women, currently comprising of one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups, have reported physical intimate victimization in their lifetime.” Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reveals that roughly 40% of Black men experience some form of intimate partner violence in their lifetime.
Children caught in the crossfire of this violence are still expected to attend school, pay attention, complete homework, and earn good grades.
The Effect on Academic Performance
Children exposed to domestic violence may show behavioral complications, whether it be short or long-lasting, which ultimately has an effect on their educational performance and social, emotional, and cognitive impairment.
Research shows the effects might include anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, and aggressive behaviors. Lower IQ has also been found to be a consequence of children witnessing domestic violence.
Alexina Simon, 57, says she raised three of her sons while she was with a physically abusive and alcoholic partner in the late 1990s. Her eldest daughter also lived with her but was already in her early 20s “when things went bad,” Simon tells Word In Black. “Her and my four sisters served as a buffer between him beating on me and the boys every day.”
Simon, who lives in Brooklyn, says she didn’t really understand how bad the educational impact was on her children until their teen years when she realized two of her sons could barely read or write on grade level
“Of course, I sent them to school every single day,” Simon says. “But just because I sent them to school every day doesn’t mean they were soaking in the lessons. I know their minds were elsewhere.”
Children exposed to domestic violence often face more disciplinary problems at school and “perform considerably worse” in math and reading compared to other students, according to a study published in the Summer 2023 edition of Education Next.
The researchers — economists Scott Carrell of the University of California–Davis and Mark Hoekstra of the University of Pittsburgh — found that the impact domestic violence has on students varies based on socioeconomic status, race, age, and other factors. And, exposure to domestic violence can also impact other young people who are not directly seeing abuse.
Carrell and Hoekstra found that adding one troubled student to a classroom of 20 students decreases student reading and math scores by more than two-thirds of a percentile point and “increases misbehavior” among other students in the classroom by 16%.
Solutions for Black Families
“There’s one thing to say violence is happening towards children. There’s another when we’re talking about domestic violence happening in the home amongst the adults,”Ashanti Branch, CEO and founder of the Oakland-based Ever Forward Club tells Word In Black.
“When children are not directly being affected,” by domestic violence “then it could easily be seen as the child’s not affected,” he says.
To counteract this, for nearly 20 years the Ever Forward Club has provided mental health support, mentorship, and safe spaces for troubled students. Branch, a former high school math teacher and school administrator, was recently awarded the Surgeon General Medallion Award for Health, the highest honor that the Surgeon General can present to a civilian who represents outstanding “acts of compassion, innovative mental health efforts, and exceptional leadership in advancing the well-being of their communities.”
He has also become known internationally for speaking up about the masks children wear to protect themselves as they move through the world.
During the COVID-19 pandemic he created the #MillionMaskMovement, an effort to help students dismantle the facades we put up to look good on the outside and close “the gap between who we are on the inside and who we show up as at school.”
Branch says that students who witness domestic violence absolutely wear masks when they show up to class, and schools have a critical role to play in helping students who may be witnessing domestic violence.
“What’s working is when students are in school, one we have at least eyesight on them. We have a little bit of background on them. That’s important,” he says. “What I see working is also having supports in schools that are helping students talk about these things.”
Experts from the National Institutes of Health say schools should also implement additional methods of screening and detecting children with signs of maltreatment and exposure to domestic violence. Training teachers and school counselors to recognize the signs of abuse and to offer support to students is also essential.
In addition, ducational programs and support for parents who are being abused can also counteract the effect of domestic violence on children and prevent further consequences such as potentially losing their parental rights.
Branch says sometimes an individual student doesn’t have to talk specifically about what’s going on. But “it is community awareness that hey, if you are experiencing these things, you’re not alone,” that can make a difference.
If you or someone you know is being affected by intimate partner violence, please consider making an anonymous, confidential call to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Chat at http://thehotline.org | Text “START” to 88788. There are people waiting to help you heal 24/7/365.