Seven years ago, my 15-year-old cousin, Ashley, was murdered by her 16-year-old ex-boyfriend in New Mexico. She had broken up with him, but he came to her home and shot her in the front yard while her father was inside.
There is much more awareness now of teen dating violence and how many small acts of abuse come before extreme violence.
The most common warning signs are when your dating partner:
▶ Checks your phone or email.
▶ Constantly texts or calls.
▶ Puts you down.
▶ Isolates you from family or friends.
▶ Makes false accusations.
▶ Has mood swings or explosive temper.
▶ Physically hurts you in any way.
▶ Is jealous and possessive.
▶ Tells you what to do.
BOYS AND GIRLS
Ashley's life was taken by someone who said he loved her. Controlling, jealous behavior at first seems romantic. She may think: "He cares so much he wants to be with me all the time!"
He makes her feel special, and it is wonderful to have a boyfriend. But his possessiveness becomes overwhelming. He checks her phone for calls and texts. He puts her down, even in front of others, and is suddenly angry over nothing. She is frightened and does not know what to do. He apologizes and promises not to be that way anymore, but he doesn't stop. Their friends see some of this behavior and feel uncomfortable, but they don't know what to do.
Surveys show that nearly 1.5 million U.S. high-school students annually experience physical abuse from a dating partner, and one in three teens is a victim of physical, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner. Both boys and girls can be the abuser.
CONTROL ISN'T LOVE
There are several excellent resources on the Internet to help identify abusive behavior and to guide parents and friends in how to help. These websites include explaining why a teen may stay in an unhealthy relationship, and how to talk about healthy relationships and healthy breakups. The fundamental message is that control isn't love. It's abuse.
These resources offer guidance on how to be an "active" bystander. Most important is not to ignore what is going on.
If you feel someone is being abused, you can help by offering support and listening. Express your concern for them and help develop a safety plan. Do not assume the problem will go away; instead, it will likely get worse. Don't wait for your friend to bring it up, and do not be judgmental when she or he does talk with you. Offer to get information for the person, or to go with her or him to talk to an adult, but do not pressure your friend.
GO TO POLICE
Safety planning is about thinking ahead regarding how to safely avoid, or get out of, a bad situation. For example, have a code word that you share with people you trust, so you can safely tell them that you are scared or need help, and have a plan in place so they know what to do. Keep a cellphone or calling card with you. Try not to see the person alone; bring a friend and stay in a public place. When you go out, let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back. Change the settings on Facebook and your passwords on the Internet to block a screen name and prevent access to your information.
If you can safely do so, keep a journal describing incidents of abuse with dates, times and names of witnesses. Save and print threatening texts and other written messages, and save abusive calls on your voicemail.
If you are being physically abused, harassed with texts or calls, verbally threatened or stalked, you should know that all of these behaviors are crimes. You can go to the police to have the abuser criminally charged, and to request a judge issue an order of protection.
Penny Clute has been an attorney since 1973. She was the Clinton County district attorney from 1989 through 2001, then Plattsburgh City Court judge until she retired in January 2012.