BARSTOW Eunice Vargas, community liasion for Desert Sanctuary, which provides support services to victims of domestic violence, showed a photograph of pop singer Rhianna's bruised face at Barstow Junior High School Jan. 31 and waited for the students' reactions.

"Some thought it was Rhianna's fault, some thought it was Chris Brown's fault," said Peggi Fries, the group's executive director. "There are no wrong answers."

Fries, whose organization has long been a part of the Barstow community and has worked with students at Barstow High School for years, is reaching out to junior high students for the first time.

"We had wanted to be in the junior high for five years," Fries said, but the school included the training in its normal curriculum.

Fries said her training was more in-depth, and because it was not connected to the school's sexual education curriculum, did not require parental consent.

Fries said it was important to reach these students before they begin high school to prevent them from entering abusive relationships or becoming teen parents.

Fries said that because February is Teen Dating Violence Prevention Month, it is more important than ever to educate students about healthy relationships.

To help Fries' message last, guidance counselor Anna Robles started a Friendship Club at the school. The club will help explain to students that love is about respect, and the roles of self-respect, self-esteem and peer pressures in relationships, Fries said. Vargas said she hoped students could eventually run the club without assistance.

Sometimes programs like hers sound embarrassing to children, or make parents uncomfortable because of their content, Fries said.

"'Teen dating violence,'" Fries said, "that probably just sounds awful."

But Fries said that instead of trying to scare children or make them uncomfortable, she focused on creating a positive, low-key environment to teach important skills.

"You can do this in a way that would not be offensive to parents," Fries said.

Fries spoke to eight classes at Barstow Junior High reaching the entire school on Jan. 31. Principal Oron Jackson said he was very interested in continuing the program.

Vargas said the use of celebrity photographs helps connect with students on their level.

"The students mostly identify Rhianna as someone that was hurt by her boyfriend," Vargas said, "and so I was able to use her to bring across the message that no one deserves to be hurt."

Contact the writer:
(760) 256-4126 or spearson@desertdispatch.com