By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
(CNN) - Lauren Astley knew her ex-boyfriend was having a hard time getting over their breakup.
Nathaniel Fujita hadn't wanted to end their three-year relationship. He made it clear in a long e-mail, asking her to give him a chance to find "a part of you that still loves me." But after several "negotiated truces," as her mother calls them, it was over in May 2011, a few weeks before their graduation from Wayland High School in Massachusetts.
But Lauren, 18, didn't stop worrying about Nate, especially as he withdrew from his friends. She was known for being kind, caring and deeply involved in the lives of friends - attributes her classmates lauded in her senior yearbook, along with her singing voice and warm smile. She discussed her ex-boyfriend's antisocial behavior with friends, and they decided together that she should be the one to reach out to him. After weeks of ignoring her texts, Nate, 19, finally agreed to meet her on July 3, 2011.
The next day, her body was found in a marsh about five miles from his home. He had strangled her with a bungee cord, stabbed her multiple times and slashed her throat. Her body was dumped in a nature preserve he knew from science class.
Nate was convicted of first-degree murder in March and sentenced to life in prison. But the quest for closure doesn't always end with a jury's verdict, especially in places like the couple's hometown of Wayland, which calls itself a "stable and progressive community, characterized by a legacy of civic engagement."
It's the kind of idyllic American suburb where "things like this aren't supposed to happen." In the wake of her death, community members pondered the warning signs. What did we miss? Could anybody have stopped this before it spiraled out of control?
Lauren's family saw new meaning in their "typical teen" drama: the fights, the constant cycle of breakups and reunions, the young man's retreat from social life after the breakup.
But as the couple's case shows, the line between adolescent drama and dating violence is a hard one to draw, especially in the moment.
Finding a new normal
Questions about what could've been done differently arose recently in Steubenville, Ohio, in Torrington, Connecticut, and in other communities where teen dating violence and sexual assault drew national attention. Blame bounces around the victim's clothes, the amount she drank, whether she "put herself in that situation," and to the perpetrators, parents and society for fostering a culture in which violence among teens - sexual and otherwise - makes regular headlines.
The Steubenville case, in which a teen was sexually assaulted as others watched, revived discussion around the importance of bystander education - teaching people to intervene safely in behavior that promotes sexual violence, said Tracy Cox with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
School violence prevention programs typically focus on risk-reduction by teaching girls not to be victims and boys not to be rapists, with no other roles to play. Even though bystander intervention not a new concept, some schools, advocacy groups and corporations are pushing it with renewed vigor in an effort to deter violence.
The goal is to challenge perceptions of "normal behavior" and make teens aware of the nuanced interactions that create a hostile climate
By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN
CNN Films' "Girl Rising" documents extraordinary girls and the power of education to change the world. Watch it June 16 on CNN.
Detroit, Michigan (CNN) - A winter's thicket of weeds still choked the soil outside Catherine Ferguson Academy late last month when the old school's loudspeaker crackled on.
"Good morning, good morning, good morning," Principal Asenath Andrews belted out. "It's a bright, sunny, ready-to-garden day!"
For decades, this is where Detroit's pregnant teens and young mothers have come to earn their diplomas. It's the only school in the city that gives them space to study while their babies are cared for just down the hall.
For the 100 students at Catherine Ferguson, high school diplomas are the minimum expectation; college acceptance letters are the aim. It has a reputation for academic rigor and comprehensive study: Students might spend afternoons on internships, weeks traveling overseas and hours working small plots on the school's farm.
On the walls, there are posters encouraging condom use, photos of newborns and beaming images of Catherine Ferguson graduates, all in their gowns, caps and tassels.
"Remember," Andrews signs off her morning announcement, "smart is what you get, not what you are."
Girls trickle outside, grumbling about the heat and mess of the farm, but intrigued by the seedlings of basil, arugula and cabbage. They fling handfuls of dirt at each other as they paw through a season of overgrowth. Over the years, the school's abandoned playground evolved into a spread of apple trees, honeybees, chickens, goats and garden plots - creatures and greenery tended to by students and a pack of volunteers.
(CNN) - There's not one, not two, but 29 valedictorians graduating from Redmond High School in Oregon this year. The school implemented a new system that adds weight to some classes, and enables students to receive up to a 5.0 GPA. But these students had three years under the old system, and all qualified to be valedictorian, CNN affiliate KTVZ reported.
It's expected to be a one-time phenom in Redmond, school officials said, but it's not the only place to have far more than one valedictorian. Just last year, a high school in Ocala, Florida, graduated 25 valedictorians - there, the top students all earned a 5.0 because of the college-level classes they'd taken.
By Marina Carver, CNN
(CNN) - A group of 15 New York City principals announced last week that starting with the 2014-2015 school year, they will no longer use state test scores as part of their middle and high school admissions criteria.
In a letter sent to parents, teachers, principals and education officials, the principals said the tests were “inauthentic” and take away time “for quality instruction and authentic learning and testing.”
This year’s New York state standardized test was introduced as being aligned for the first time with Common Core Standards - the new national standards that have been adopted in 45 states. The tests were administered to students in third grade through eighth grade in April and are used by some selective New York middle and high schools when considering admission.
Common Core encouraged many teachers and administrators at first, including Stacy Goldstein, a principal who signed the letter and the director of School of Future's middle school in Manhattan.
“We like it because it focuses on critical thinking and reading across a lot of texts,” she said of the education standards. “We were hoping the test itself would reflect more meaningful work, but it didn’t.”
The principals’ letter expressed that disappointment: “The length, structure and timing caused many students to rush through the tests in an attempt to finish, get stuck on confusing questions, and not complete the test or even get to more authentic parts like the writing assessment,” they wrote.
“We’re not just worried about the kids’ scores going down, we’re concerned about the validity of the test itself,” Goldstein added. “We didn’t want this letter interpreted as principals just concerned about the test scores, so we wanted to get it out before the scores are released.”
By Chris Boyette, CNN
(CNN) - An upstate New York student said he got a three-day suspension for creating a controversial Twitter hashtag encouraging discussion of the school district's failed budget.
Pat Brown, a senior at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, says he created #s**tCNSshouldcut to brainstorm ways his school could save money in response to voters on Tuesday rejecting a $144.7 million budget plan. The budget did not receive the 60% voter approval it needed.
Many students were concerned, Brown said, because the school board had warned that if a new budget was not eventually passed, they might have to eliminate athletic programs, other extra-curricular activities and introduce additional administrative cuts, including the elimination of some teacher positions.
The budget is up for a revote on June 18.
"Everyone on Twitter was talking about 'I can't believe the budget didn't pass' and so I created (the hashtag) as a joke, really," Brown told CNN on Friday.
By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN
(CNN) - On Saturday, 68 seniors will graduate from Wilcox County High School in South Georgia, leaving behind a legacy that could last long after they’ve said their goodbyes: Next year, for the first time, their high school will host a prom.
It’s a new tradition in their small rural community, one they hope will eliminate their county’s custom of private, racially segregated proms.
A small group from 2013’s senior class sparked the idea of an integrated prom this year, bucking 40 years of high school tradition.
When their county’s racially segregated schools combined in the early 1970s, the school called off its homecoming dance and prom; it was a volatile time at the newly integrated school, alumni said, and parents and school leaders were wary of black and white students attending the same dance. Like in many other Southern communities, Wilcox County students and parents stepped in to plan private, off-site parties, complete with formal gowns, tuxedos, DJs and décor.
But long after outward racial tension died down, the private, segregated parties in Wilcox County remained - a quiet reminder of racism, students said.
This year, a few white and black seniors organized a prom open to all Wilcox County High School students, whether white, black, Latino or Asian.
"If we're all together and we love each other the way we say we do, then there are no issues," integrated prom organizer and Wilcox County senior Mareshia Rucker said during the dance in April. "This is something that should have happened a long time ago."
Their campaign drew international media attention and an outpouring of online support and donations of money, prom dresses and DJ services. It also drew some criticism from students and parents who liked the old tradition, and community members who worried about the negative light cast on their small town.
Regardless of the ups and downs, students said, they would have preferred an official school prom instead of a private, integrated event off-campus.
Next year, it’s happening.
By Mariano Castillo, CNN
Birmingham, Alabama (CNN) - The class of 1963 crowded in a rectangle on the dance floor, the memories of high school fresh on their minds as the band played in a sea of pink and blue hues.
Aretha Franklin. Etta James. The Temptations. Just what you would expect to be playing at a 1960s prom. Yet the song that drew the most bodies to the dance floor was "The Wobble."
Until this hip-hop song emptied the chairs, it felt as if the auditorium had been transported back 50 years.
But it's 2013, and despite the full-court nostalgia for the 1960s, that decade was one of the most difficult times in Birmingham's history.
Societal tensions over race were so high in 1963 that the city canceled senior prom for five of the city's segregated high schools for blacks.
Today, a half century has passed since the seminal civil rights protests that changed Birmingham and plotted a path for the nation away from segregation and toward equal rights.
Just like that path, the healing process has been a long one.
The Historic 1963 Prom, held Friday and hosted by the city of Birmingham, closed one chapter for these Alabamans.
'A tension-filled city'
Growing up in Birmingham in the 1950s, Earnestine Thomas knew the rules of this segregated city. At a restaurant, she could pay in the front, but had to walk around the back to get her food from a cook. She could shop only in certain places; there were neighborhoods that she knew not to visit.
"As a child, I recognized that it was unfair, but didn't understand that there were laws propping (segregation) up," she said as she waited for a hair appointment before Friday's prom.
She treated herself to a hair styling before donning a lavender dress with a sequined jacket and matching shoes. Lavender was a fitting color, she said, not just because it is her favorite, but because it was the school color at Parker High School.
It was a day of celebration that she and her classmates were denied in 1963.
By Rachel Simmons, Special to CNN
(CNN) - Spring may be graduation season, but the most coveted rite of passage for many teenage girls is the prom.
From the latest craze of "promposals" to the minute-by-minute social media broadcast of it all, the rituals of prom form a throwback cultural primer called "How to be a young woman." Teen girls are competing relentlessly to be queen.
The queens of prom are the conventionally beautiful, the wealthy and the heterosexual - always passively waiting to be asked.
Isn't prom just a fun dance that hardworking students deserve? Sure, but it's also an event where girls internalize damaging cultural messages. Those who are exalted on this "once in a lifetime" night offer an object lesson in how modern girls are expected to look and act.Prom is a cultural report card of sorts on how well, or not, young women are doing.
Here's what a bright 17-year-old girl learns as her lace gown drags behind her into the school gymnasium:
She learns that she must have money to attend the prom
Prom was modeled after the debutante ball of the old days, where elite girls formally announced they were ready to date, while a hand-picked bevy of suitors watched. Today, prom is still a rich girl's party.
In 2013, prom spending will rise on the shoulders of a more robust economy. Families who plan to spend money on the big night are expected to drop an average of $1,139. All that cash might be good for business, but it disadvantages the poor and working class girls who can't keep up. Meanwhile, boys can get away with renting a tux for less than $100.
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Editor's note: In May, the superintendent of Wilcox County, Georgia, schools announced the high school will host its first official school prom in 2014. Read the full story
By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN
Wilcox County, Georgia (CNN) - It's a springtime tradition in this stretch of the magnolia midlands for crowds to gather at high school students' proms. They'll cheer for teens in tuxedos and gowns while an announcer reads what the students will do once they leave this pecan grove skyline.
Earlier this month, Wilcox County High School senior Mareshia Rucker rode to a historic theater in the nearby town of Fitzgerald to see her own classmates' prom celebration. She never left the car, even to catch up with her friends. She'd recently helped to invite the critical gaze of the world to her county; few would be happy to see her there, she said. Besides, she's black and wasn't invited to this prom reserved for white students anyway.
For as long as most remember, Wilcox County High School hasn't sponsored a prom for its 400 students. Instead, parents and their children organize their own private, off-site parties, known casually as white prom and black prom - a vestige of racial segregation that still lives on.
"When people say that seeing is believing, it truly is," Mareshia says a few days later from the comfortable bustle of her family's kitchen, central command for the three generations that share it.
"Just talking about it, it didn't hurt my feelings. I didn't care," she says. "When I saw it, I felt really crappy. I didn't understand what was so different about me and them."
She apologizes as her eyes grow shiny and tears dribble down her face. Toni Rucker swoops in to fold her arms around her oldest daughter.
"What is the difference," she murmurs, Mareshia's head resting on her chest. "There is no difference."
Mareshia and her friends bucked 40 years of local customs this month by organizing their own integrated prom, a formal dance open to Wilcox County's white, black, Latino and Asian high school students. Organizers, both black and white, said they lost friends in the process - a grim experience in the waning weeks of the school year. It's been hard on the rest of their hometown, too.
When the story erupted on TV and social media, Wilcox County became a symbol of race relations stuck in the past. People around the world heard about the sneers from some classmates, the silence from some adults, the school board that says it supports them but didn't sponsor its own prom. Thousands lashed out at the old tradition or offered up kind words, cash, dresses, a DJ. Stunned, they wanted to know, could this be true? In 2013?
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By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN
(CNN) - As Quanesha Wallace remembers, it was around this time last year when the idea first came up at Wilcox County High School. It was nothing big, just chatter about prom, school, what comes next, what they'd change.
If things were different, someone said, we'd all go to the same prom.
For as long as anyone could remember, students in their South Georgia community went to separate proms, and homecoming dances, too. White students from Wilcox County attend one. Black students, another. They’re private events organized by parents and students, not the school district. Schools have long been desegregated, but in Wilcox County, the dances never changed.
The friends all agreed they'd go to an integrated prom, Quanesha said, and when they asked, others said, "Yeah, I'd go, too."
"We are all friends," Quanesha's friend, Stephanie Sinnot, told CNN affiliate WGXA-TV in Macon, Georgia. "That's just kind of not right that we can't go to prom together."
So now it's April, and prom is coming up, and these black and white friends, longtime pals who go to classes together and play sports together and hang out together, are going to prom together, too. For the first time, students are organizing an integrated dance, one that welcomes any of Wilcox County High's 400 students.
"This is going to be the biggest prom ever to come through Wilcox County," said Quanesha, one of the event's organizers.
The theme will be "Masquerade Ball in Paris." There will be an Eiffel Tower and Mardi Gras-style masks, dancing, flowers, catered food and a clubhouse in nearby Cordele. They're expecting gowns, ties, manicures, up-dos, sparkle. Quanesha has a date, although she hasn't decided on a dress.
"If you want to get fancy, get fancy," said Quanesha, 18. "If you don't, that's fine."
Attendees will vote on a king and queen but also cutest couple, best smile, best dressed. They'll do a recognition ceremony for a classmate who died. They'll start a new prom tradition: a unity toast.