Signs a partner may be abusive
• Extreme jealousy or controlling behavior
• Things get ‘serious,’ fast
• Mood swings
• Alcohol/drug use
• Explosive anger
• Takes you away from family and friends
• Is forceful during an argument
• Easily annoyed, angered, upset
• Boxes you into ‘traditional’ gender roles
Source: The Naples Shelter for Abused Women & Children
A Collier high school student returned home one night in January to find a message written in blue tape on her bedroom floor.
"I hate love."
Her ex-boyfriend, a teen at the same high school, was arrested the following day on charges of burglary, stalking, and kidnapping.
With one-third of U.S. teens reporting abuse from a dating partner, National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month became a national event in 2010. The problem isn't going away, local experts say, and abuse is now addressed in Collier County from middle to high school students.
Writing off erratic teen and preteen relationships as a product of their age doesn't do justice to what may be real abuse, explained a child and youth advocate with the Shelter for Abused Women & Children in East Naples.
"A lot of what we see is this is seen as kind of normal, that (young relationships) are supposed to be dramatic, volatile, emotional, highly intense — which is not true," said Jaime Crossan-DeBres, who educates middle and high school students about abuse. "Relationships are not supposed to involve yelling and screaming and calling each other 75 times a day."
The case of the Collier teen goes beyond the message on her floor. She had told her ex-boyfriend, 18-year-old Phi Tang, to stop calling her, but he didn't, one of his arrest reports noted.
The same night he left the tape message, he also stood in her closet, a kitchen knife nearby on the floor, as she walked in.
She left the room, sent him a message to leave, but returned to the room when he threatened to cut himself with a knife, according to the initial arrest report.
That's when he pinned her to the bed, the 15-year-old girl told investigators. She banged on the wall to get her father's attention.
The next day, Tang was arrested and released on $55,000 bond. The following week, he was rearrested and charged with lewd lascivious battery for a sex act with a person 12-15 years old. The relationship began when he was 16 and his ex-girlfriend was 14.
He was again released on bond.
Before the end of January, Tang — who had been removed from Golden Gate High School and banned from the campus — was arrested a third time after school officials reported to law enforcement he was near the school's exit. It would have been the same route his ex-girlfriend would have to take home.
What sets teen dating violence and abuse apart from its adult counterpart is that the abuser attends the same school, Crossan-DeBres said.
"Quite often, where they are supposed to be learning is quite often where their abuser is," she explained.
The sexual battery charges against Tang were dropped. His next court date is scheduled for Feb. 22.
Despite not being physically, mentally or emotionally fully developed, dating violence in the under-18 set shouldn't be dismissed, the head of the Shelter added.
Distinguishing violent from unhealthy relationships, and unhealthy ones from healthy ones, are distinctions that can trip preteens and teens up, especially because they may not know what boundaries to set.
"I think a lot of teens may not even know they're in a relationship like this," said Linda Oberhaus, the Shelter's executive director. "Jealousy, wanting to know where you are, asking to change your clothes ... (Some teens) may be flattered. You can actually think those are signs of love and caring, instead of jealousy and possessiveness."
Parents have at times signed their minor children into the East Naples shelter to get them out of dangerous situations, according to Oberhaus.
In another local case, in August a 16-year-old Beacon High School student reported to the Collier Sheriff's office that a man against whom she had a restraining order was following her in his car as she left the school. He previously threatened to "cut her to pieces," according to an incident report. She told investigators the man twice hit her with his pickup truck, breaking her right wrist. Collier County arrest information indicates the man, in his 20s, was never arrested.
The fear of reprisals from friends, of not being believed by parents, of further abuse, can keep teens from reporting such violence. Text messaging and status updates on social networking sites create a new level for abusers to keep tabs on victims.
"A lot of them don't understand that this escalates quickly," Crossan-DeBres said. "Just because it's not violent yet doesn't mean its healthy."
Crossan-DeBres said four or five students will ask her during or after school presentations if certain behaviors are OK, like a boyfriend telling a girl what not to wear, or a girlfriend calling obsessively. These "disclosures" indicate to her that tween and teen dating violence is underreported, and present in both middle and high schools.
Through the Youth Advisory Council at the Shelter, she encourages students from local schools to participate in dating violence awareness campaigns, whether or not they have been through abuse themselves. The Collier County school district has been supportive of the in-school presentations, she said.
Unhealthy relationships at the tale-end of the teen years are also an issue. The results of a student survey in Fall 2011 revealed Florida Gulf Coast University students had a higher rate of toxic relationships than the national average, a figure Dr. Jon Brunner, a psychologist and the university's director of counseling and health services, attributes to being a comparatively new school trying to establish programs that work.
The survey, which the university pays the American College Health Association to conduct every other year, showed 15 percent of FGCU students reported an emotionally abusive relationship in the last year.
The national average was 10 percent.
"Why that is, I'm not sure. I think there's lots of things that are probably particular to our students," Brunner said. "We're really basically in toddler-hood ... Maybe our student are different developmentally."
The importance of peer relationships for this generation of college students may also be a factor, he added.
"If you have a gen where their peer relationship is very import, and they are very group- and peer-oriented, are they more likely to get into relationships that aren't healthy and try to make it work?" he asked.Since the survey was first conducted at FGCU in 2008, reported intimate partner abuse is down about half a point. The school trains orientation leaders and provides counseling to students to combat the above-average statistic, Brunner said.
To join the Shelter's Youth Advisory Council, call 239-775-3862 or visit www.facebook.com/youthadvisorycouncil
For the Shelter's confidential 24-hour crisis line, which is open to teens, call 239-775-1101
For the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline, call 1-866-331-9474