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Breakup Advice From An Unlikely Place02:13
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Students look on as another lists famous breakups. Rihanna and Chris Brown were at the top of the list. (Nick Dynan for WBUR)
Students look on as another lists famous breakups. Rihanna and Chris Brown were at the top of the list. (Nick Dynan for WBUR)

We all know about government campaigns to stop teen pregnancy, doing drugs and even eating trans fats. Another program running in some Boston schools is designed to address an issue that officials say harms public health — bad romantic breakups.

What, you say? Yes, the city is attempting to protect local teens from heartache.

Eighteen-year-old Terrence Miles runs an after-school workshop for middle school students at the Mildred Avenue Community Center.

Miles is tall, with glasses, more Doogie Hauser than Don Juan. He hasn't had many girlfriends, but he brims with confidence about matters of the heart. The city pays him to share that wisdom with younger kids.

"What are the negatives of breaking up over Facebook?" he asks the restless group of seventh and eighth graders.

Seaon Goodrich raises his hand. Like nearly all the boys here he's wearing jeans and a T-shirt.

"The memo can go out fast," he says. "Once you break up with the person, like, they'll tell all their friends and stuff. And then they'll just start talking trash about you."

The kids all agree. Breaking up over Facebook is a bad idea. Don't text it. Don't tweet it.

Sixteen-year-old Benson Bain sums up the best strategy for terminating a relationship.

"Try to break up with people the best way you can, and the best way you can is face to face," he says.

A high school adviser tallies students' preferred method for breaking up. The middle school students say they prefer the phone to ending things face-to-face, or electronically. (Nick Dynan for WBUR)
A high school adviser tallies students' preferred method for breaking up. The middle school students say they prefer the phone to ending things face-to-face, or electronically. (Nick Dynan for WBUR)

Of course, kids have gone centuries — millennia --without this kind of assistance in their personal lives.

CJ Doyle is skeptical of the program.

"These intimate decisions regarding personal behavior" of teenagers should happen during "consultations with the parents and with the family," he says.

Doyle runs the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts.

"This is the nanny state run riot. This is the expansion of government beyond all rational limits."

But others say this is a legitimate place for government to help.

"This truly is a public health issue." says Casey Corcoran, the program director of the Start Strong Initiative at Boston's Public Health Commission, which runs the relationship training.

"Young people who are involved in unhealthy or abusive relationships can experience depression, or insecurity. There can be violence in the relationship."

Corcoran started off counseling men who beat their wives. But to really make a difference, he decided to go younger, to the age when kids are just starting to experiment with dating. He developed a curriculum for 12 and 13 year olds. The program costs $250,000 a year and is almost entirely funded by grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

According to the state's Department of Health, one in five teens experiences some kind of dating violence. And violence came up over and over again at the breakup workshop.

Thirteen-year-old Melissa Johnson, for instance, said there's a downside of breaking up face-to-face. "They could hit you," Johnson says.

Corcoran says healthy relationships don't just happen.

"It's something that you have to learn and there are skills that you can actually practice to better engage in a healthy relationship," Corcoran says. "That's the message that we have to get across."

Corcoran says parents should be involved in their children's personal lives, but sometimes they miss the subtle clues that their kids are emotionally involved because it's happening over texts and email.

"As adults we sometimes negate the relationships young people are having online," Corcoran says. "But to them those are real relationships. And if we minimize that, we're going to lose them at an important time when we need to be talking to them."

That's why the Public Health Department hopes to add the training on healthy relationships to a citywide sex-ed curriculum for Boston public schools.

Miles supports that plan. He says learning how to have a "healthy breakup" will benefit students "throughout their entire lives," and "isn't something that can be replaced."

It's a life lesson, he says, that's just as important as learning calculus, physics or any other subject in school.

This program aired on April 26, 2011.

Bianca Vázquez Toness Twitter Reporter
Bianca Vázquez Toness was formerly a report for WBUR.

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