Students connect with victims at Nashoba Tech in Westford
The Westford Eagle
November 26, 2011
Cosmetology students at the Nashoba Valley Technical High School got a lesson in hard knocks Thursday when they welcomed a special group of clients to their school salon.
Victims of domestic violence got haircuts and manicures from the students, took home slightly worn donated business outfits and were treated to lunch through an annual program sponsored by the Middlesex District Attorney’s office and the high school.
Each year cosmetology students at Nashoba Tech are taught how to recognize the signs of domestic abuse through Middlesex DA Gerry Leone’s “Cut it Out” program. A salon chair is a conduit for a confidential revelation by a victim, according to Leone.
Marian Ryan, general counsel for the Middlesex DA set the scene for the students prior to their introductions to the victims — or survivors as Ryan called them. About 25 students assembled in a meeting room prior to entering the salon to hear Leone and Ryan explain why they’re relying on them to help identify victims of abuse.
“When people have a secret — and being abused is a secret — that is a place where they can confide in,” Ryan said.
One out of three women will be victims of domestic abuse, she added. The distorted relationships are not exclusive to romantic partners, she said, but also include parents and children.
Leone indicated the number of reported victim cases in Middlesex County is increasing, but said that doesn’t necessarily mean there are increasing numbers of victims.
“I’m actually gratified when I see the number’s going up,” he said, “because it means disclosure is occurring.”
Leone said victims are reaching out for help more frequently thanks to the efforts of his staff members and the work of several advocacy agencies who are spreading the word about services. Leone’s office works with Reach Beyond Domestic Violence in Waltham, and Domestic Violence Services Network in Concord. In addition, the DA’s 150-member staff includes Shawn MacMaster, a victim witness advocate, who helps to place victims in shelters located in local neighborhoods.
Those shelters appear to be private residences to passersby, MacMaster said. Staying under the radar is a strategy to help protect abuse victims from being tracked and attacked by their abusers.
But not all survivors of domestic violence land in a shelter. One victim, who called herself Lucy (not her real name), said she left the family home with her two young children and went right into a rented apartment in the same town. Through financial assistance from Reach Beyond, Lucy said she was able to afford school supplies, clothing and car repairs after she left an abusive marriage four years ago.
Trivial as it may seem after coping with verbal and physical abuse, Lucy spent Thursday morning at Nashoba Tech getting a manicure—one of nine survivors to be pampered that day.
“I think it’s great we can make people beautiful,
said senior Mikayla Forsyth of Shirley. “It makes you want to be a hairdresser because we can help people. It makes doing what we do 10 times better.”
“It’s opened our eyes about the situation,” said Cali Nguyen, a senior from Littleton. “Now we know how to deal with people.”
Leone said the practical effect of the students’ lesson is that they become ambassadors in the effort to spread the word.
“It grows the number of people who are willing to help people in need,” he said.
Leone has a two-fold program for stemming the occurrence of domestic violence. On the front end, he said, are efforts in prevention, intervention, and training. On the back end, are investigation, prosecution and resources.
“If you’re preventing it on the front end,” he said, “then you’re not dealing with spiking issues on the back end.”
Leone knows only too well how issues spike when prevention programs are not in place. In 2010 two Westford families lost loved ones in acts of domestic violence.
Today Forsyth and Nguyen know some warning signs to watch for. They credit their cosmetology instructors Donna McMahon and Sherilee Farrand with enforcing the lesson.
Among the symptoms to watch for, said the students, are missing clumps of hair because abusers will sometimes pull it out; bruises around the face or head; jumpiness or jerkiness when the person is touched; brittle hair or skin imperfections caused by stress.
But the students are also taught the limitations of what they can do for a victim and said they would not get involved in encouraging someone to leave their home.
“People have a reason to stay,” said Forsyth. “It’s not our decision.”
The reasons why women stay in abusive relationships are often financial said Leone.
Such as “the woman with three kids who isn’t the breadwinner,” he said.
Lucy was one such woman. The mother could not take her children to a shelter because one was seriously ill. The child’s dependence on medical equipment kept the mother tethered to their father, whom, she claims, had guns in the house.
“That was a very major concern,” she said. “That just shifts everything. You can’t outrun a bullet.”
But the students approach their role pragmatically when it comes to the victims.
“We just want them to know there’s a safe place for them to go and we’ll be there for them,” Nguyen said.