Turning a Personal Tragedy Into a Life-Saving Mission
SED alum launches nonprofit to prevent dating violence
Malcolm Astley spent his childhood trying to understand what makes people tick. His parents were mental health practitioners, so dinnertime at the Astley house touched on such difficult questions as, “What makes people violent?” Astley (SED’82) continued to pursue these questions at the School of Education, where he earned a doctorate in counseling and human development. “My solution was to aim toward prevention, with the view that if educational institutions could be shaped appropriately, they could head off a lot of problems,” says Astley, a former Lexington, Mass., elementary school principal and a member of the Wayland School Committee. “It’s ironic that I’ve ended up in this position.”
Heartbreakingly ironic, because on the evening of July 3, 2011, Astley’s 18-year-old daughter Lauren paid a visit to her ex-boyfriend and never came home. Nathaniel Fujita, who Lauren’s friends said was struggling after the couple’s breakup, is serving a life sentence for murder, and Astley is left grappling with how his only child could be dead, why Fujita killed her, and how to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening to someone else.
In response to Lauren’s death, Astley and Mary Dunne—Lauren’s mother—established the Lauren Dunne Astley Memorial Fund shortly after her murder. The nonprofit works to promote educational programs and legislation that raise awareness about healthy teen relationships and that prevent dating violence. “It was an effort to put something in the place of something so dear that had been lost,” says Astley, his voice catching. “And that’s what humans rightly do—try to keep creating in the midst of destruction.”
The fund’s top priority is developing and passing legislation that requires K–12 education on healthy selves and healthy relationships in Massachusetts public schools. Such education can have a significant impact: research from the National Institute of Justice shows that classroom- and school-level interventions, including teaching about healthy relationships and encouraging students to report incidents to school officials, led to a 32–47 percent reduction in sexual violence victimization and perpetration in 30 New York City public schools. In Massachusetts, funding for healthy relationship education was cut following the recession in the early 2000s, Boston magazine reported. In cooperation with state legislators, Astley’s fund proposes incorporating safe relationships education into existing anti-bullying legislation. “The schools’ plates are so full,” Astley acknowledges. “But this ought to be number one, in my view.”
The fund’s second and related priority is to support awareness and prevention by training guidance counselors, helping boys and men find positive solutions to dating violence, and sponsoring related arts presentations in Massachusetts schools and venues. Two of these presentations are “You the Man,” a one-man show depicting various male characters’ responses to a partner violence situation, and “The Yellow Dress,” a one-woman show about a high school girl murdered by her boyfriend.
“A number of young women have been reported to see school counselors soon after the show,” says Astley of the latter. At Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, the play was coupled with a slideshow about warning signs of partner violence, presented by student-athletes on the school’s Mentors in Violence Prevention team. Students commented, “That was so powerful,” and “That was the best assembly ever,” says Lori Hodin, a psychology teacher and Safe School Initiatives coordinator.
The fund also sponsored a performance of “You the Man” at Wayland High School. Assistant Principal Allyson Mizoguchi says the show hit the mark where previous performances and assemblies on the topic hadn’t. One male student told her, “I liked how the performer told the story; it was much better than being lectured to.”
Astley and Dunne also speak directly about their family’s experience—at the State House, in media interviews, and in schools. This not only raises awareness; it encourages young people aspiring to work in prevention and healing—like students at BU’s School of Public Health (SPH). Astley has spoken about Lauren’s death and about partner violence at SPH Associate Professor Emily Rothman’s Preventing Intimate Partner Violence class. One SPH student, who requested that her name not be used, was affected by Astley’s compassionate response to Fujita’s family: Astley maintained communication with Fujita’s mother until lawyers advised him to cease, and he shared a tearful embrace with the Fujita family after Nathaniel’s conviction, the Boston Globe reported. As a victim of intimate partner violence, the SPH student says she struggles to relate to that kind of empathy but feels that “reacting that way might be more effective for prevention than feeling spiteful about what happened.” Colin Gallant (SPH’15), who wants to work with men to prevent partner violence, was interested to hear Astley’s thoughts on possible contributing factors in perpetration, and was encouraged to hear “how other men are making a difference.”
Repeatedly talking about Lauren’s death isn’t easy, but Astley says it’s good for him. “It’s a way of grieving, and trying to heal and prevent agony for other young women and their families and communities. That in some way helps balance Lauren’s death and absence.” Looking back on all that people have achieved in human rights over the centuries, he told Rothman’s students, makes him hopeful about saving other young people from Lauren’s and Nathaniel’s fates. “I’m quite optimistic,” he told them, “despite the edge in my voice.”
Julie Rattey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A version of this story was originally published in the fall 2013/winter 2014 edition of @SED.1 Comments