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The kindest cut of all

Salon students trained to spot abuse

Irene Baez is a cosmetology student at Greater Lowell Tech.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Irene Baez is a cosmetology student at Greater Lowell Tech.

TYNGSBOROUGH — Local survivors of domestic violence recently were treated to a day of pampering at Greater Lowell Technical High School, but the makeovers had a deeper purpose than just a welcome boost to their self-confidence.

Dina Rudick/ Globe Staff

Kaylee Cruz (left) and Irene Baez admire a client’s hair at Greater Lowell Technical High School.

While the women from Alternative House, a Lowell program that offers services and support to victims of domestic abuse, enjoyed complimentary haircuts, manicures, and a catered lunch, their student stylists learned how to spot signs of domestic abuse and safely refer clients to local community service providers.

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The experience was part of a “Cut It Out” training session for 11th- and 12th-graders, led by Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan. About 60 cosmetology students from Lowell, Tyngsborough, Dracut, and Dunstable participated in the program.

The training brought students together with local police and representatives from community-based domestic violence programs, including the Alternative House and Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence.

“What we learned today, it makes me want to go into this field even more,” said Kaylee Cruz, 17. “Ever since I was little, I’ve loved doing hair and makeup, manis and pedis. What this program made me realize is that with the skills I have, I can not only make women look good — I can make them feel good.”

Stylists see their clients on some of the happiest and saddest days of their lives, noted Deborah Lagasse, a salon professional who has 35 years of experience in the industry and has been teaching in the school’s cosmetology program for the past 15 years.

Often, a woman will tell her stylist about something that’s troubling her before she will confide in a friend or family member.

“When they talk to us, they’re really talking to themselves,” said Lagasse. “They’re looking at their own reflection in the mirror. They’re not looking at us, studying our reactions to what they’re saying, so there’s no fear of being judged.”

That unusual bond, coupled with the intimate nature of the work, makes it possible for salon professionals to detect when something is amiss in a client’s life. When educated with information about signs that indicate abuse, and what assistance is available, stylists can provide a crucial bridge linking victims with resources and trained advocates who can help, Ryan said.

Domestic violence “is about power and control,” Ryan noted. “The injuries they suffer aren’t going to be injuries that everybody can see.”

Wounds are often concealed under long hair or dark sunglasses, she noted. Bumps, marks, or scars on the scalp or neck may be evidence of recent or past injuries; bloodshot eyes may be a sign of choking.

Hair that’s been pulled is often damaged or missing in sections. Defensive wounds on the hands or wrists also are common.

Other signs may be more subtle, Ryan said. A client may be anxious about answering her cellphone because she has to check in or risk the abuser’s wrath. Or she may lament not being able to see family or friends anymore, an indication that her partner is keeping her in isolation. Some victims may be too sore to move fluidly from the stylist’s chair to the sink.

When providing services to a client who may be in an abusive relationship, Ryan advised the students to be nonjudgmental and supportive, to offer resources, but not to tell people what they should do.

According to Ryan, research shows that domestic violence victims often think about leaving three or four times before they’re ready to. Children, financial dependency, love, culture, and religion are among the many reasons some choose to stay, she noted.

The “Cut It Out” program was developed and first implemented in 2002 in Alabama. An initiative of the Professional Beauty Association Foundation, it mobilizes salon professionals and others to fight domestic abuse in cities and towns across the country by building awareness and training staff to recognize warning signs and safely refer victims to local resources.

To date, the local program has trained some 800 students and professionals across Middlesex County. Launched in 2009, the Middlesex initiative began with school-based programs at Nashoba Valley Technical High School in Westford. Greater Lowell Technical High School joined the program the following year.

The program has also been taught at private salons throughout the county, including shops in Newton and Stoneham, and at the Lowell, Framingham, and Malden campuses of Empire Beauty School, a national beauty school chain.

In January, Ryan formed a partnership with Elizabeth Grady, marking the first time that the program has been expanded to include student aestheticians, makeup artists, and massage therapists.

“We are building a foundation for awareness by reaching students at the earliest points of their training,” Ryan said.

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com.
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