PALM BEACH, Fla. — The image of a married woman hiding a black eye behind sunglasses as a symbol of intimate partner abuse is being eclipsed by the image of a girl walking through a school hallway hiding bruises her boyfriend gave her — too young and inexperienced to think of the blows as anything but love.
Nearly 1.5 million high school students across the country experience physical violence at the hands of a dating partner each year, according to a website created by the National Dating Abuse Hotline and the awareness group Break the Cycle.
One in three adolescents have experienced physical, verbal, emotional or sexual abuse from a boyfriend or girlfriend, a rate that exceeds other forms of youth violence, said the website, www.loveisrespect.org.
That rate is holding steady, even as other forms of violence decrease, the American Psychological Association said. And that alarms domestic violence workers in Palm Beach County.
“We see a lot of parallels between teen dating violence and adult domestic abuse,” said the Rev. J.R. Thicklin, president and CEO of Destiny by Choice, a West Palm Beach domestic violence awareness group.
“But in the case of teens, there are a whole lot of other issues that don’t exist between adults,” he added, “and that’s one thing that makes the statistics especially disturbing.”
Unlike adults, teens in abusive relationships don’t typically live together or see one another much outside of school, Thicklin and others said. Their battleground becomes the telephone and social media — where put-downs, name calling and jealousy manifest in angry phone calls and Facebook posts.
But when they meet, the episodes can be just as violent as those among adults. Thicklin brought up the case of Brandon Nicholas Santos, 18, arrested on first-degree murder charges in the death of his girlfriend, Emilie Sineace, 16.
Police said Santos drove to Sineace’s suburban Lake Worth house Sept. 14 and sent her a text message to come outside. When she did, he fired six shots at her. Half of them hit her and Sineace, an Inlet Grove High student and aspiring surgeon, died the next morning. Now Santos, who recently played football at Park Vista High in suburban Boynton Beach, may spend the rest of his life in prison.
“The thing about this case is that so many people say that (Santos) was a nice young man, and he didn’t appear to them to be violent,” Thicklin said. “But again, it goes back to so many times where our young men are taught, either at home or from the people around them.
“They can’t let a woman ‘run them’ or they need to ‘get her in line’ or other mind-sets that make them feel like they need to have a sense of ownership over the person they’re dating.”
These mind-sets are part of what local violence prevention workers are trying to combat.
At a seminar earlier this month in Geri Grocki’s leadership class at Boynton Beach High School, Jennifer Rey posed a question that drew smiles from most of the teens: What happens when a boy shows emotion?
“They say you’re acting like a girl,” said Jobed Jerome, 17, a broad-shouldered varsity offensive lineman on Boynton Beach’s football team. “It’s like, ‘You need to man up.’ “
Rey, who works with the Delray Beach-based nonprofit group Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse, let a few other students chime in similar responses and added a few of her own, capping off a video illustrating the messages of violence that permeate hip-hop music and pop culture.
Advocates against domestic violence say the gender stereotypes and media images discussed in Grocki’s class, especially when coupled with children who witness violence in their homes, send the message to many teens that violence is the way to deal with conflict _ even when it comes to dating.
Jerome and the other students in Grocki’s class say they’ve heard of cases in their own schools of peers being involved in abusive relationships. In most cases, they say, the victims don’t take the abuse seriously, a sentiment echoed by many advocates against domestic violence in adults and teens.
Teaching with Rey was fellow counselor Candace Britt, who spends four days a week talking to middle school students about abstaining from violence that permeates parts of pop culture and possibly their own home lives.
Britt herself was just 22 when she began a relationship that became physically violent. As with most cases, it was marred by emotional and verbal abuse — a two-year barrage of criticism, put-downs and arguments that didn’t come to blows until she tried to leave for good.
“The first time he ever told me he loved me was after we had one of those big arguments,” she said.
Now, more than three years removed from the relationship, Britt said she tries to teach teens to see the signs of abuse and separate themselves before it’s too late.
Teens often bring up the 2009 case of R&B singers Chris Brown and Rihanna, Britt said. The celebrity couple turned a national spotlight on domestic violence among young adults when Brown was arrested and sentenced to probation for attacking Rihanna. The couple separated in the aftermath, but recent media reports have them back together _ sending teens a confusing message, workers such as Britt and Thicklin said.
The incidents of physical violence in abusive relationships most often occur after the couple has been sexually involved, Thicklin said, adding that workers find it can trigger more feelings of ownership.
Young women are sometimes the abusive partner and even domestic violence workers overlook those cases, Thicklin said. That, some Boynton Beach High students said, points to bad double standards when it comes to gender roles.
“You always hear it’s OK for a girl to hit a boy, but not the other way around,” senior Jonah Cabada, 17, said. “But it’s wrong no matter who does it.”
Gloria Richardson, founder and executive director of the Delray Beach-based nonprofit Let’s Grow Together, says while cases like Brown’s and Rihanna’s play a role in discussions on teen dating violence, the most prevailing factor remains what kids learn at home.
In one of the group’s anger management classes she teaches, she said a 20-year-old man who had issues with violence against a dating partner was adamant that he had never witnessed violence growing up. But later, he remembered confrontations between his parents where he’d watch his father shove his mother and call her names.
“It was like an ‘Aha!’ moment for him,” Richardson said. “And that’s what happens in the case of a lot of young people. Because they’ve grown up around it, because it’s what they know, a lot of times it’s difficult for them to see anything wrong with what they are doing.”