By Ashley Luthern
“I would kill you if I could.”
That’s one of about 200 text messages and telephone calls sent to a 17-year-old Mahoning County girl in one month from a former male friend.
The girl has asked him numerous times to leave her alone and filed a police report to support her efforts to obtain a restraining order.
Another 17-year-old girl told local police that her ex-boyfriend, whom she already has filed against for a temporary restraining order, called her about 30 times in a span of six hours.
In yet another case, a 17-year-old area girl reported her ex-boyfriend grabbed her, bruising her stomach. The girl’s mother and teacher told police it wasn’t the first time she had been assaulted.
Last week in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court, the mother of Tracee Banks, murdered when she was 17, said her daughter was involved in a nine-month-long, volatile relationship with Melvin Shaw II, the man charged in her death.
These are just some local examples of teen-dating violence, a topic that, along with bullying, will be the focus of a walk Saturday in Boardman Park.
In a 2009 nationwide survey, 9.8 percent of high school students reported being hit, slapped or physically hurt on purpose by their boyfriend or girlfriend in the 12 months prior to the survey, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
The CDC also reports from a 2010 survey that about one in five women and nearly one in seven men who ever experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner first experienced some form of partner violence between the ages of 11 and 17.
Experts said teens sometimes don’t realize that a cruel, threatening remark from their boyfriend or girlfriend is abuse and could lead to physical violence.
“It usually starts with verbal abuse and then emotional and then physical. They know that hitting and slapping is wrong, but we don’t talk enough about the emotional and verbal abuse,” said Delphine Baldwin-Casey, a retired Youngstown detective sergeant who started the department’s Family Investigations Services Unit.
Baldwin-Casey said teens see violent behavior and hear bad language on television, in their neighborhood or even in their homes and “it becomes acceptable to them.”
There are several red flags for abuse, said Deborah Landis of Operation Keepsake, the nonprofit organization sponsoring Saturday’s awareness walk.
“There are different types of abuse: verbal, emotional, physical, digital [online] and sexual abuse; and before those begin, there are often warning signs, such as extreme jealously or partners wanting to control the other’s appearance,” Landis said.
Peggy Pecchio, executive director of Operation Keepsake, said teenage perpetrators often have “a lack of empathy” when it comes to teen-dating violence or bullying.
Teens often don’t realize the extent of the damage of their actions because much of the bullying and harassing, as evidenced in the police reports, takes place through text messages or online, she said.
“If I have to look you in the eyes, I might have a harder time doing it than if a just tweet or text something,” Pecchio said. “And then adding to the problem is that it gets out of control and spreads very quickly.”
Baldwin-Casey said it’s important for victims to remember that nothing they do warrants such treatment.
“Victims sometimes think that they did something to deserve this. I always stress that everyone makes bad choices, but that does not mean we deserve to be someone’s victim,” she said.
A friend’s role
Teen-dating violence experts say friends can play an important role in stopping the abuse.
“The worst abuse is their silence. If a victim can go to a friend, that is very powerful. As a friend, you can’t make their choice for them, but if they confide in you, you can empower them,” Baldwin-Casey said.
She said friends who become confidants need to be sensitive when discussing the abuse.
“You don’t want to be judgmental because they believe this is love. They think this person can change and they can help make that change, when really those issues were there before,” Baldwin-Casey said.
Officials with Operation Keepsake are specifically targeting friends of teen-dating violence or bullying victims with their Saturday event: Friends 4 Friends Campaign Walk-A-Thon.
Operation Keepsake began programs for teen-dating violence about three years ago and then bullying, when schools requested it.
“In both bullying and dating violence, there’s an unequal level of power. ... Both are all about ‘the secret.’ You’re afraid to tell anyone, or you don’t believe it or your afraid of retaliation,” Pecchio said.
“We want to help people empower their friends, so if your friend is a victim, you help them stand up,” Landis added.
Operation Keepsake was founded in 1988 and has done programming about healthy relationships in about 170 schools in the Greater Youngstown and Cleveland areas, including 13 districts in Trumbull and Mahoning counties. The nonprofit primarily is funded through federal and state grants.
Ohio schools are required to teach students in grades 7-12 about teen-dating violence because of a law known as The Tina Croucher Act, which was enacted in 2010. But the lawmakers did not provide funding or specify the kind of education, so programs vary from school to school.
The Friends 4 Friends Campaign Walk-A-Thon specifies that 50 percent of the proceeds raised by each individual will be given to his or her school to fund programming.
Landis said schools could use that money to pay for books, brochures or speaker fees, for example.
Ending a violent relationship is the most-dangerous time in teen-dating violence.
“The first thing they should do is tell a trusted adult, a parent if possible,” Landis said. “The second is to determine what kind of safety measures you need, such as a restraining order. The third is to watch your surroundings and change your routines.”
Police advise victims of dating violence to come forward sooner rather than later.
“If it’s a crime, they should come to us. I think as soon as there’s an implied threat or someone is made to feel in danger, it’s a crime,” said Boardman Police Chief Jack Nichols.
“There’s a great reluctance to come forward because it is such a personal issue” and victims don’t want to be identified, Nichols said.
Still, he encouraged victims to come forward before it escalates.
“I remember having a case where a boyfriend put his girlfriend in a headlock and shot her five times in the head. Each case is different, but there’s a tendency that when it comes to us, it’s already out of control,” Nichols.
In Ohio, juveniles who have been stalked, assaulted or sexually abused by another juvenile can ask for a civil protection order. Filing police reports for offenses such as telecommunications harassment or menacing [threatening] can provide support for a protection order.
A text message such as the one reported to local police, “I will [expletive] up your life more than you know, I would kill you if I could,” can lead to charges of aggravated menacing and/or telecommunications harassment, both misdemeanors of the first degree. A local juvenile officer said it used to be much easier for victims to avoid their abuser, but now it’s more difficult because of cellphones and social-media websites.
“When I talk with juveniles and their parents involved in cases like that, one of the first things I say is to make sure you’re making it perfectly clear that you don’t want them to contact you and not to initiate or respond to the harassments,” said Sgt. Chuck Hillman, juvenile officer for Boardman police.
Baldwin-Casey said one of the most important steps to preventing teen-dating violence from escalating is for parents to interact with their children. All of the local police reports referenced by The Vindicator involved parents going to the police with their daughters.
“Parents needs to talk to their kids. So many times, parents say they didn’t know,” she said.