"Nobody would talk to me. Nobody really cared to listen to my side of the story. I just had no one on my side, girls or boys," Van Zanten, now a college freshman, said. Van Zanten ended up transferring to a new school to escape the hostility of her peers.
Menlo-Atherton High School junior Katie Ransohoff wants to eliminate such incidents by introducing an interactive program about teenage relationships to area schools. "The ABCs of Healthy Relationships," developed by Ransohoff with senior researcher Nancy Brown and interns at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, aims to teach high school students to build healthy relationships and recognize unhealthy ones.
It was already successful at engaging students at Palo Alto High School and Los Altos High School in pilot presentations last fall, "ABCs" co-creator Brown said.
"It never fails. When we do 'The ABCs' in the classroom, there are these lights that go off across the room. There's always a couple of kids whose eyes just fly open [when they realize] 'Oh my god, So-and-so does that!'" she said.
The presentation discusses familial, friend and romantic relationships and addresses real-life situations under themes of "awareness, balance and consciousness."
This week the course materials — including a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation and accompanying information — were posted at www.pamf.org/teen/abc/, Ransohoff said.
One slide about the media and relationships points out that "most relationships on TV are superficial, short-term, and 'easy,'" while a slide about trust counsels against "obsessively checking in on the other person."
The course helps teens evaluate their relationships by introducing relevant concepts and terms, Brown said.
"It gives them language to talk about controlling versus supportive behavior," she said. "It opens up the conversation."
This language may also give students the terms they need to communicate about household conflict, Brown said.
"They may talk to their parents more," she said.
Abuse victim Van Zanten said there is an unrecognized need to discuss relationships with adolescents.
"A lot of people don't necessarily know that for teenagers it's one of their first relationships, and they don't really understand how to be treated," she said.
If more students were aware of relationship issues, the student community wouldn't react in the future the way they did to her, she said, citing threats and a four-week egging spree directed at her house.
Paly offers a "Living Skills" class that specifically addresses topics such as sexual health and dating violence but does not have a lesson that examines the fundamentals of good — or bad — relationships, instructor Magdalena Rivera said.
Rivera said "The ABCs" would be a welcome addition to the curriculum.
"A lot of the relationships that we form as individuals we tend to take for granted," Rivera said.
"Being able to look at that objectively through any kind of presentation ... is a wonderful idea," she said.
Fellow instructor Letitia Burton said the "ABCs" fall trial run was a bit rocky, but she had an overall positive outlook.
"The idea was really good, it just needed some tweaking. I'm glad they reworked it, and it will be available," she said.
Gunn's comparable "Living Skills" class is open to the curriculum as well, said Assistant Principal Kim Cowell.
"The course's goals and objectives are pretty static, but the materials that are used, the ways it's all presented, that is always in flux," she said. She said that the class already covers some but not all of the same issues.
"The ABCs" was born when Brown and Ransahoff, who had collaborated earlier on anti-bullying material, discovered a trend on PAMF's Web site in 2005.
"I noticed a lot of anonymous questions from teens struggling and wanting relationship advice," Ransohoff said.
With help from an Ashoka Foundation grant, Brown, Ransohoff and others worked on "The ABCs" over two summers. In 2006 they developed a slideshow and piloted it in classrooms, using feedback to refine the presentation and write accompanying materials this past summer.
Ransohoff will be presenting "The ABCs" at Menlo-Atherton on Sept. 17 and plans to contact Gunn and Paly administrations to let them know it is available.
"It's quite teachable now that it's up on the Web," she said.
Her enthusiasm is not limited to the Peninsula.
"Anyone can use it now, all over the world," she said. "It's a resource for all teens."