COLUMBIA, S.C. — Several school systems across the Palmetto State will work with the state Department of Education on an LGBT-inclusive teacher education initiative addressing domestic violence and teen dating violence, even as the state legislature could debate an anti-gay bill on the same issue this spring.

The program was announced by State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex on Jan. 11. Several school districts are participating in Aiken, Allendale, Barnwell, Charleston and Greenville counties.

“Teens in an abusive dating relationship are more likely than non-abused peers to smoke, use drugs, engage in unhealthy diet behaviors or suffer eating disorders, engage in risky sexual behavior, and attempt or consider suicide,” Rex said in a message posted in the education department’s website. “Dating violence patterns often start early and carry through into adult relationships for both abuser and victim. Responding to family and dating violence is made harder by the fact that many affected young people are reluctant to turn to caring adults for help, preferring to confide in friends for support. Some hesitate to tell anyone at all, and so suffer in silence.”

Rex continued, “Teachers and guidance counselors can be consistent and influential ‘positives’ in the lives of these children. Our initiative aims to give South Carolina’s educators the knowledge, training, guidelines, and referral information they need to fulfill that role.”

The state program will partner schools with area social services departments and the statewide Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. Funding is being provided, in part, by a $10,000 grant from Verizon Wireless.

Rex’s move comes after a bill addressing similar issues failed in the legislature last year. The legislation was designed to assist school districts in adopting policies and programs to combat dating violence.

The bill originally defined “dating partner” as a “person, regardless of gender, involved in a intimate association with another primarily characterized by the expectation of affectionate involvement whether casual, serious, or long term.” It lost support from some Democrats when “dating partner” was amended and redefined as a “person involved in a heterosexual dating relationship with another.”

Yvonne McBride, director of the South Carolina Department of Education’s Office of Youth Services, told qnotes their new dating violence curriculum, unlike the pending anti-LGBT legislation, would not purposefully exclude the relationships of gay and lesbian students although she did not know the specifics of the training.

Rebecca Williams-Agee, communications director for the Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said her organization’s trainings made no distinction between opposite-sex or same-sex relationships.

“Our programs are about healthy relationships in general and there is no distinction made between either [gay or straight relationships],” she said, adding the group’s curriculum does, at times, recognize the unique “dynamics in society and communities with gay and lesbian youth and individuals.”

Mark Bounds, the deputy superintendent in charge of student safety initiatives, said the anti-gay dating violence bill was “still active” and could be debated during the legislature’s session this spring.

Williams-Agee said the Coalition Against Domestic Violence is opposed to any dating violence bill which excludes gay and lesbian students.

“We are really trying to get that amendment taken off,” she said. “We oppose it with that amendment and we do not believe there should be a distinction made between either [gay or straight relationships].”

In a 2009 youth risk behavior survey, 16.1 percent of all South Carolina students statewide reported being “hit, slapped, or physically hurt on purpose by their boyfriend or girlfriend.” Female and African-American students were more likely to be the victims of dating violence than others. The survey did not report results by sexual orientation.

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.