Jackie Muniz was 16 when she first participated in Teen RAPP – a $3 million citywide school-based Relationship Abuse Prevention Program that is once again fighting for its survival in the New York City budget process. “I was in an abusive relationship. My boyfriend was a gang member and I was very afraid of him,” she says. “I was also afraid of what could happen if I told someone.”
Jackie had good reason for her fears. “My boyfriend monitored my moves,” she explains. “He did not allow me to hang out with my friends. He bought me a cell phone, and got mad if I called anyone but him. He grabbed me, pushed me up against the wall, and slapped me in the face in front of his friends and family.”
While the physical violence was terrible and was a very real danger to her safety, the emotional abuse was equally damaging. “He insulted me and made me feel like I was nothing. He convinced me that everything he did to me was my fault.”
Luckily, a friend told Jackie about RAPP and, despite her fears, she went to see the RAPP counselor based at her school.
“From the moment I entered the RAPP office I felt safer,” she says. “I thought the sessions would be about my relationship but they were more about building my self-esteem. I never felt forced to leave the relationship. The work we did gave me strength. When I finally decided to leave it was because I realized that I didn’t deserve to be abused - and that none of it was my fault.”
But RAPP would do more than just help Jackie deal with an abusive boyfriend. It helped to change her life.
“Being involved in RAPP activities strengthened me and awakened interests and talents I never knew I had,” Jackie explains. “I became a peer educator and went to classrooms and community groups to teach teens about relationship abuse.” Before joining RAPP, Jackie’s grades had suffered as her self-esteem and her hopes for the future were smothered by abuse. “By the time I graduated, I realized that RAPP had created a career path for me,” she says. “I knew I wanted to be a Social Worker.”
Jackie was accepted into City College, becoming the first person in her family to earn a degree – with “high honors” by the way. From there, she moved on to Hunter College School of Social Work where she recently earned her MSW. Today, Jackie Muniz is a RAPP Coordinator for the Center Against Family Violence program at Franklin K. Lane High School in Queens – the first RAPP graduate to be hired for that position.
Jackie credits her success – in school, in her work, and in a new loving and healthy relationship – to her experience with RAPP. “None of this - not me getting out of that relationship - not me growing to love myself - not me entering college and graduating - not me getting my Masters in Social Work - not me having met a person who truly respects and loves me - would have been possible if it weren’t for the inspiration and guidance that I found in the RAPP program,” she says.
While Jackie Muniz may well be the archetypical RAPP success story, she is far from unique. Every year, RAPP programs touch the lives of more than 50,000 ethnically and culturally diverse students throughout New York City.
Three human service provider agencies --The Center Against Domestic Violence, CAMBA and STEPS to End Family Violence/Edwin Gould Services for Children & Families—station MSW-level RAPP Coordinators at 62 middle and high schools. They offer a range of services including in-classroom instruction on issues of relationship violence and bullying, one-on-one crisis intervention for students dealing abusive relationships as well as a host of other problems, and a peer educator program which provides training, stipends and valuable work experience for particularly motivated students.
Despite its impressive record over an 11-year history, RAPP is once again slated for elimination in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Executive Budget for FY2012-13 which begins on July 1st. For most of its existence, RAPP had actually been “baselined” in the Executive budget, providing a stable and reliable source of funding from year to year. The program’s sense of security was torn away, however, in FY2011 when the Mayor first dropped RAPP from his budget proposal, forcing the City Council to step in. Since then, the Council has voted to continue funding of the RAPP program in both FY11 ($2.5 million) and FY12 ($2 million), with the remaining funding coming from the NYC Human Resources Administration.
Loss of the program would be devastating at a time when concerns about relationship violence and bullying are higher than ever, say providers.
“Teen RAPP has a proven track record of engaging teens in preventing domestic violence and also thwarts bullying,” says Judith Kahan, CEO, Center Against Domestic Violence.“These issues are nationally recognized as leading problems amongst middle and high school students.”
“Teen RAPP saves New York City millions in potential costs related to medical treatment, hospitalization, juvenile detention, teen pregnancy shelter placement, and other social serves,” says Lucia Rivieccio, Director, STEPS to End Family Violence.
“Teen RAPP has taught students in all five boroughs how to have healthy relationships, recognize bullying and abuse, and help themselves, family and peers handle dangerous relationships,” said Kevin Coffey, Assistant Deputy Director, CAMBA.
The best advocates for RAPP continue to be those young people whom the program has served.
Some are those who entered the program as victims of abuse or bullying, then graduated with a new recognition of their own worth and future possibilities. “Before I found RAPP I was judged, pushed, shoved, ridiculed, and alienated because I was a gay student,” says Wilfree Vasquez. “RAPP saved me from an environment filled with hatred and ignorance. It taught me to believe in myself. I have gained the confidence I need to make it in the world.” Today, Wilfree works for a local fashion designer and volunteers part-time to help the RAPP program at Washington Irving High School in Manhattan.
In other cases, RAPP saves young people from becoming abusers themselves. “Freshman year, I found myself involved with the wrong people, engaged in the wrong activities, and walking down a path to which there was no positive outcome,” says Harry Gaston. He saw that the students most others looked up to were respected for their proficiency at demeaning and violating other kids. “Before I knew it, I was in a gang, doing nasty things to strangers, disrespecting students I thought less of, and taking advantage of girls who didn’t know any better.”
Luckily, a girl he was dating “dragged” him into the RAPP room to speak with a counselor…and with other kids. “My classmates’ worlds were falling apart right in front of them, and all I was doing was making things worse,” he said. “The events that occurred in that RAPP room from my sophomore year until graduation, taught me so much about myself and what I am capable of. Any dreams I buried away under the belief that my life was rigid and incapable of change surfaced; it was after joining the RAPP program that I finally felt like I could be the person I actually wanted to be in school and in the world.”
Without RAPP, Gaston is convinced he never would have graduated high school. As a result of RAPP, he is now completing his final year of pre-med studies at Lehman College, a single father raising his four-year-old son.
By reaching young people early – during middle school and high school – RAPP has the potential to assist youth on both sides of the abusive or bullying relationship. “They are still developing their attitudes and values,” says David Zelmansky, LCSW, Supervising Social Worker at CAMBA. “There are more opportunities to make positive changes.”
RAPP’s three-session classroom curriculum covers Abusive Relationship Behaviors, Healthy & Unhealthy Relationships, and Sexual Assault/Harassment. Students take a pre-survey prior to the first session and a post-survey at the end of the third session. “We show that students increase their knowledge about what makes a healthy relationship, the five forms of abuse, the age of consent and safety planning,” says Zelmansky. “They become very engaged in the workshops.”
Social workers provide one-on-one counseling for students who are in abusive relationships, have witnessed domestic violence at home, been a victim of crime, or have experienced bullying. In the 18 programs which STEPS to End Family Violence operates on nine DOE school campuses, they provided individual counseling for 2,356 youth during 2011.
RAPP’s seven-week summer Peer Leadership Training Program teaches students to become leaders so that they can go back into schools to train, educate and empower their peers about violence and bullying prevention and self-esteem. “It is very powerful for students to hear these messages from other students,” says Zelamsky.
With graduates like Jackie Muniz, Willfree Vasquez, and Harry Gaston, the RAPP Peer Leadership program has an outstanding record of positive outcomes for graduates. “96% of STEPS’ High School Peers graduated and most of whom went onto college,” says Lucia Rivieccio, LCSW, Director, STEPS to End Violence at Edwin Gould Services for Children. “This compares with a NYC average of 65.1%.”
“RAPP Coordinators are able to connect with teens and help them deal with issues that often go far beyond relationship abuse and bullying,” says Rona Solomon, Deputy Director of the Center Against Domestic Violence. “We see these kids turning their lives around on a regular basis.”
“Before RAPP I never had an adult who actually cared for me unconditionally. Please save RAPP so that other teens will have the opportunity to feel whole again,” Willfree Vasquez told the City Council in testimony during last year’s last year’s budget hearings. He still feels the same way.