In testimony delivered through tears at the State House Tuesday morning, the mother of murder victim Lauren Dunne Astley called on legislators to mandate comprehensive dating violence education in Massachusetts schools, saying that if her daughter had received the “pearl of wisdom” never to go alone to visit a former boyfriend, she might be alive today.
“If only she had learned and internalized that singularly important lesson,” said Mary Dunne, who spoke with her former husband and Astley’s father, Malcolm Astley, to the Joint Committee on Education. Behind them, their daughter beamed in a blown-up version of her senior portrait. “That small pearl of wisdom should be ingrained in our children as deeply as buckling their seat belts and recycling their bottles and cans.”
Lauren Astley was 18 when she was beaten, strangled, and slashed to death on July 3, 2011, by her former sweetheart, Nathaniel Fujita, in his Wayland garage after a tumultuous breakup. Fujita was convicted in March of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
Since their daughter’s death, Astley and Dunne have started the Lauren Dunne Astley Memorial Fund, which supports programs to promote healthy teen relationships, as well as the arts and community service. They were joined Tuesday by a panel of mental health and education specialists who also called for legislative action.
“Relationships are the beginning and the end of what people are about,” Malcolm Astley said after the hearing. “Kids need a lot of training in what is one of the most painful parts of being a human, and that is having a relationship come to an end.”
Astley urged the committee to implement “the best elements” of three House bills, all of which call for health education to include teaching about healthy teen relationships and dating violence.
He called the level of violence against women today “extreme.” Three women are killed in America every day by intimate partner violence, he told the committee.
“We, over the centuries . . . in order to address, solve, and prevent many terrible problems, have taken remarkable and effective steps, both grand and practical, from the abolition of slavery to the initiation of women’s right to vote,” he said. “We can take another step together now.”
Astley said that educating children when they are young about how to cope with friendships ending will prepare them to grapple with the end of loving relationships as they get older.
Dunne echoed his sentiment, saying that middle school is when education on healthy relationships must start. “Your early relationships, particularly your very first one, is a very complicated matter,” she said.
Dunne said she looks back on warning signs she wishes she had recognized: Lauren’s friends did not like her boyfriend; he never came to the homes of Lauren’s parents; he refused to allow her to end the relationship; and Lauren visited him alone after they did break up. Dunne, her expression tight with grief, never once referred to Fujita by his name.
Representative Thomas P. Conroy of Wayland, who said his daughter was close with Lauren, spoke in support of the bills, calling on legislators to help address the culture that allows dating violence.
“I’m always the kind of legislator that tries to see a problem, and address it before it becomes a tragedy,” Conroy said in an interview after the hearing. “Unfortunately, the tragedy has already occurred in this instance. It’s not necessarily the best way to legislate, but doing nothing after this kind of a tragedy doesn’t seem appropriate either.”
According to a spokeswoman for Representative Alice Peisch, House chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Education, the committee has until March 19, 2014, to decide whether to send the bills to the full House and Senate for a vote.