- Associated Press - Saturday, May 9, 2015

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - On a recent Wednesday night, Willis Manshell Miller climbed the stairs to the second floor of a Downtown office building and took a seat in the front row of a windowless room for the batterers class.

He had arrived late, and counselor Nakiesha Smith was already asking the men to describe the past week’s interactions with wives and girlfriends.

“Being emotionally affirming. Anybody did that or got an example?” asked Smith. She spoke with a strong northeastern accent from her upbringing in New Jersey and two metal points from a piercing flashed from her left eyebrow.

The six men in the class eagerly offered ideas for emotional affirmation. “Tell ‘em how you care,” one said. “Say, ‘What can I do to make you feel better?’” another suggested.

The class conversation shifted to relationships with children. Miller, who stands about five feet, six inches tall and has a beard, mustache and mutton-chop sideburns, spoke up in a gravelly voice. He said his 19-year-old son was already showing violent tendencies toward women. “And now I’m trying to teach him a different way of life. And this is the most hardest aspect, because I already showed him the wrong way.”

The students looked like normal, working-class men, but they had been accused of doing things such as punching women repeatedly in the face and throwing them to the floor. They’re in a six-month, once-a-week course that aims to reshape their thinking about women and relationships. Many have court orders to take the class, and the program serves as an alternative to prison time.

All state-certified batterers programs in Memphis use a teaching template developed in the early 1980s in Duluth, Minnesota.

It’s not an anger management program. Rather, it teaches that the driving force behind men’s abuse of women is the desire to control them. Through role-playing, class discussion and homework, the Duluth Model aims to teach men to respect women and resolve disputes through negotiation.

Doubters of the batterers classes point to a lack of solid data on their effectiveness. Proponents argue passionately that batterers deserve a chance to change, and say the class often helps them.

The private company that runs this class, Tennessee Correctional Services, offers several batterers classes each week, including one class for female batterers and one for men who speak Spanish - Smith teaches it with the help of an interpreter. A male colleague, 56-year-old Wilbert Hill, helps her lead the sessions.

The company allowed a Commercial Appeal reporter to attend a recent Wednesday night class for men and talk with those who agreed to interviews. The class offers insight into the thinking behind domestic violence, a common and dangerous crime.

Nearly 11,000 domestic violence simple assault cases were reported to police in Shelby County in 2013, according to Tennessee Bureau of Investigation statistics - that’s a rate of 11.6 per 1,000 people, more than double the statewide rate. That same year, authorities recorded an additional 1,400 domestic violence aggravated assaults, which often involve extreme violence.

Faced with the idea that violence has been instilled in these men since childhood, Smith tells the men that yes, their background influences them, but they have the power to choose peaceful actions.

Communities throughout Tennessee run batterers intervention programs because they want alternatives to jail, said Kathy Walsh, secretary of the Domestic Violence State Coordinating Council, an organization that certifies the programs.

Walsh says batterers classes must demand accountability, but she sees them as a useful tool, especially for men who haven’t been in trouble before. “For perpetrators who want to change the behavior, I think they can be very effective.”

In Tennessee, no hard-and-fast rules mandate what crimes qualify a person for a batterers’ program and what crimes require a prison term. Nor does the state set rules on accountability, for instance, how many times a batterer can miss class without punishment.

No statewide statistics track the effectiveness of these programs, Walsh said. National studies have shown mixed results.

That mixed data builds doubt. “I believe in the possibility of change,” says Olliette Murry-Drobot, executive director of the Family Safety Center, which offers support to domestic violence victims. “I just don’t know how often it happens for domestic violence batterers.”

Smith, the counselor, says some people question her decision to work with batterers rather than victims. She believes she’ll help more women. “If you just work with the victim and not the batterer, you leave that batterer to do that to the next person.”

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Information from: The Commercial Appeal, https://www.commercialappeal.com

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