January 29, 2014 - A trio of Oxford High School seniors is working hard to spread the word and educate the community about abuse in teen dating and relationships.
Raising awareness about physical, emotional and verbal abuse in teenage relationships are (from left) OHS seniors Alexis Waple, Jessica Downs and Breeze Muscarella. Photo provided. (click for larger version)
"It's not just physical abuse, it's emotional abuse, too," said Breeze Muscarella. "We want them to be aware that if you're in a relationship like that, you can get out of it."
Muscarella, along with Alexis Waple and Jessica Downs, are using self-defense classes, guest speakers and t-shirts as part of their project for DECA, a group for students preparing for careers in marketing, finance, hospitality and management.
"We picked this because we thought it was a topic that needed attention," Waple said. "It's kind of overlooked."
One in three adolescents in the United States is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner, a figure that far exceeds rates of other types of youth violence, according to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines teen dating violence – also referred to as domestic violence or abuse – as the physical, sexual or psychological/emotional violence within a dating relationship as well as stalking. It can be perpetrated either in person or electronically and involve a current or former partner.
"You normally just think (of the) physical (aspect), but (in) a lot of the teenage relationships, it's more emotional or verbal – or on social media," Downs said.
The trio knows two girls who have suffered emotional and verbal abuse from the same guy. Their situations prompted this awareness project.
"It was about control," Downs said. "Always having to know where you are, what you're doing, who you're with."
They explained how this young man's pattern is to isolate a girl from her friends and family, then turn her against them and make her feel as though he's the only one who will ever love her.
He also consistently criticizes a girl's physical appearance, like telling her she's fat, in order to diminish her self-esteem, making her easier to control. according to Downs.
After learning more about abusive relationships, both Muscarella and Downs said they now realize they've been involved in one before.
"You don't really think of it as a big deal, but then when you see all the little facts that add up to it, it makes you realize it is," Downs said. "I guess when it's (called) domestic abuse or domestic violence, it doesn't sound like anything you've been a part of."
The girls noted there are warning signs of an abusive relationship such as having a partner who questions your every movement; is jealous of the people you spend time with; engages in name-calling and makes remarks meant to belittle you; and harasses you with constant phone calls and/or text messages.
Muscarella said many students either witness or know about abusive relationships among their peers, "but no one ever does anything about it."
"We want people to do something about it," she said.
To help raise awareness, Waple, Downs and Muscarella held a self-defense class to teach young women how to protect themselves in situations where they feel vulnerable.
A 2011 national survey conducted by the CDC revealed that 9.4 percent of high school students reported being hit, slapped or physically hurt on purpose by their boyfriend or girlfriend within the last 12 months.
"The girls really liked (the class)," Muscarella said. "They enjoyed it a lot and they said that they would come back."
They also brought in two guest speakers from HAVEN to address groups of OHS students, mostly freshmen.
Based in Oakland County, HAVEN is a nonprofit organization that conducts programs to promote violence-free homes and communities, and helps victims of domestic violence and sexual assault by providing shelter and counseling.
"It made people realize that this is a problem and there are situations in our school that no one even realizes (exist)," Downs said.
"I think it's reaching people," Waple said.
They plan to have the HAVEN speakers come back to address the topic of dating violence with parents and eighth-graders at the middle school.
Some adults may think broaching the topic of teen dating violence with 13 and 14-year-olds is too young, but the DECA students said it's not. "We felt like that's when it starts," Downs said.
To help fund HAVEN's efforts, Waple, Downs and Muscarella are selling special t-shirts ($10 each) and crew neck shirts ($15 each) bearing the message "Take a Stand Against Domestic Violence."
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.