Abuse can begin early; teens face it at a high rate

Editor’s note: This look at domestic violence is the last of four stories examining the situation in Northeast Mississippi for Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Daily Journal reporters have explored the victims and abusers and why it happens as well as what can be done to halt the cycle of domestic violence, starting with youth.

Many different words can describe teenage girls – smart, cute, funny, athletic, poised – but one they usually would reject is victim.
Unfortunately, victim is a word that would describe about a third of the girls in dating relationships, says Megan Rohman, a 16-year-old senior at Saltillo High School.
Rohman recently won the title of Miss Tupelo Outstanding Teen, and will compete in the statewide competition next summer.
The platform Rohman chose for her pageant participation is domestic violence, something she has experienced firsthand.
“I got interested because my mom was a victim of it,” Rohman said. Her mother’s relationship had turned abusive and the family moved, but the abuser pursued Rohman’s mother, Lisa Massey, after the relationship ended.
“I remember waking up one night, and when I went into my mother’s bathroom, her lip was bloody and there was blood all over the floor, and he had her pinned up against the wall, strangling her. It was the most horrific sight I had ever seen.”
Rohman was 12 and her sister was 8.
Her mother recently remarried and the family is in “a very healthy, welcoming household – such a blessing,” Rohman said.
Winning the title will give Rohman opportunities and access to spread awareness of both domestic violence in the home and teen dating violence, where the cycle of being an abuse victim often begins, she said.
“I hear guys cussing girls in the hall at school, and the girls don’t think anything about it; they think it’s OK,” Rohman said. It’s a sign the girls don’t respect themselves, she continued.
Rohman said she doesn’t think there are any awareness campaigns under way at her own school or any schools in Lee County to alert teenagers to signs of an unhealthy relationship, one that is verbally and psychologically – and possibly physically – abusive.
“I see girls who think that their boyfriends being controlling is being caring,” Rohman said. “It’s not somebody caring about you. It’s somebody who doesn’t know how to handle himself when you’re not there.”
Asserting control in the relationship is only one sign of what may be a teen dating violence situation, said Deborah Yates, executive director of domestic violence shelter S.A.F.E. Inc. of Tupelo.
“Parents particularly need to be aware of the signs,” Yates said. “At the end of the first or second date does a child who was very active in things at church suddenly become less active because of that controlling partner? Does a cheerleader all of a sudden stop doing that from pressure of a controlling boyfriend who wants her all to himself? Does she change her dress or hair based on his demands? Are there physical signs of abuse such as bruises on arms?”
These are some of the strategies abusers use to isolate a girl from her family and friends, Yates said.
Though girls are most often the victims, the climate is changing and girls, too, are victimizing boys, she said.
“Girls stalking boys, constantly calling them on the phone, demanding to know where they are, or driving by their house at night has become a real issue,” Yates said. “In my opinion, cell phones have become the worst thing for people who are in unhealthy relationships. They can call you any time, anywhere, and it increases the power and control some abusers have over their partners.”
S.A.F.E. Inc. welcomes contact from anyone who is in an abusive situation. They have domestic violence support groups in Tupelo and Iuka, but have been known to take their services to the person when circumstances prevent the person coming to them.
“In a program with preteens (tweens) a situation of sexual abuse came to light and the child wasn’t able to come to us,” Yates said. “Our counselor went to the school, and with the consent of the parent and the school, had a support group right there on campus.”
Among the best ways for developing tweens and teens to combat dating violence and victimization is to become involved in activities that help build their self-confidence, Rohman said.
“The data says that girls who are involved in athletics, school clubs and other activities are less likely to be the victims of dating violence,” Rohman said.
Clubs outside of school also have programs that bolster girls’ self-confidence, and the Mississippi Federation of Women’s Clubs has a specific focus on domestic violence awareness.
“Each club is asked to do something to support shelters in this area, which includes Columbus and Oxford,” said Karen Brown of Bruce, Domestic Violence Awareness chairwoman for District 3.
A project this month had each club member bring a pair of new women’s or children’s pajamas in all sizes to donate to the shelters, she said.
“We have several juniorette clubs in our area for high school girls” that help them develop character and leadership skills, Brown said.
New anti-bullying laws and school policies, as well as the presence of professional support on school campuses, also should help address the problem, said Kathy Ward, a guidance counselor at Tishomingo County High School.
“Our principal met with students at the beginning of school when the handbook was presented,” Ward said. “He told them ‘Don’t let anyone abuse you verbally or physically.’ He has told students time and time again to let someone know if they are being hurt.”
The Families First Resource Center also is housed on the TCHS campus, and it provides educational programs for the community and a support group for victims of domestic violence.
Many of the campuses in the region also have school resource officers and/or mental health counselors assigned, and Ward urges students to go to them when they have a problem.
Beyond her own high school campus and other high schools and middle schools, Rohman plans to continue her awareness campaign when she goes to Mississippi State University next fall.
“I want people to know and understand it’s not just adults, that it’s teens too,” Rohman said. “I think that is so important. I know that there’s no one in my school that would think ‘This applies to me’ if they read a headline on domestic violence. Nobody would even stop. It’s even more so for teens now, because it’s becoming more and more of a trend in high schools. When I read that statistic of one in three high school students being victims of teen dating violence, it’s really scary.”
Contact Lena Mitchell at (662) 287-9822 or lena.mitchell@djournal.com.

Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal