Many people tend think of high school romances as harmless infatuations which can dwindle away or blossom into innocent love. But the reality is that an alarming number of these young relationships can become abusive and even dangerous. In fact, one in three high school students has been or will be involved in an abusive relationship.
That's something Lynne Russell knows about first hand - her daughter was killed by a former boyfriend. Now Russell campaigns to make sure that no other parents would lose a child to dating violence.
Siobhan Russell was 16 when she began dating her boyfriend. He killed her three years later.
"Siobhan dropped out of high school with about three months to go because of this relationship," says Lynne. "She had a revelation one day that she needed to get out, go back to school and start her life all over."
Her mother says Siobhan ended the relationship, enrolled in a new high school and graduated with honors, even winning a scholarship. But then the past caught up with her.
"The relationship became lethal when she was moving on," says Lynne. "On Easter Sunday 2009, for some reason - we still don’t really know the truth - she paid a visit to her ex-boyfriend’s house. He deliberately and brutally killed her."
After her daughter’s murder, Lynne discovered hundreds of e-mails, text messages and diary entries that painted a disturbing picture of the torment Siobhan had gone through for more than two years.
Hoping to keep her daughter’s memory alive, Lynne looked for a way to give hope and advice to other teens who are or could become victims of dating abuse. On October, 16, 2010 - on what would have been her daughter's 21st birthday - Dating Abuse Stops Here (DASH) - was established. According to Lynne, the website educates teens and their parents about dating violence.
"We decided that we have the ability with Siobhan’s story to get the message out," Lynne says. "So we are showing what dating violence is, what dating abuse is, what type of behaviors constitutes dating violence - whether it is emotional, sexual or physical."
The Russells’ neighbor, Wendy Claunch is DASH’s co-founder. In fact, the whole neighborhood got involved in launching the website.
"It’s amazing how it came together virtually from the germ of an idea, to a session in my basement with the neighbors, to try to come up with a name for the group," says Claunch. "We had kids coming up with names. We all just kind of brainstormed. We’ve gotten videos there, really some powerful videos of all different girls who have lost their lives to dating abuse."
Siobhan's father wishes he'd had the information in time to save his daughter.
"If I knew then what I know now, I definitely would have seen, I believe, some of those signs and would have taken some action to stop the relationship as it was at the time," says Andy Russell. "When you look at the behavior of an abuser, it’s very difficult for someone to break that relationship. On average, it takes someone six or seven times to get away from that relationship."
Siohan’s high school classmate, Meagan Wray, says her boyfriend was also abusive.
"For me, I really had faith that he would change, I really had faith that things would be better. You care about the person, and you try and you try and you try, and nothing ever happens. But you want them to stop acting that way, so you keep trying to fix it," she says. "He kept trying and he kept trying and he kept trying. He would always call me. He would always text me. Eventually, I just [thought] 'Okay, you have to stop.' And when I was telling him that I was done with him, I brought someone with me."
Dating violence is a serious problem among college students, as well, according to Connie Kirkland of George Mason University Sexual Services. Raising awareness about dating abuse, she says, is crucial to ending it.
"I think awareness is absolutely the key - to know that you have options, that getting text messages from your boyfriend or girlfriend 50 or 60 or more times a day is not right, that it’s not love," says Kirkland. "Because initially partners think, ‘Oh he loves me. That’s why he’s asking me where I am, that’s why he wants to know what I am doing.' In fact, it’s control. It’s manipulation. It’s not being loving."
Kirkland says technology has provided abusers with new ways to hurt their partners.
"People can say things in a hurtful way by writing it on text or e-mail and in a controlling way, much more than they would if they were talking, having a face-to-face conversation."
But while the Internet provides more opportunities for dating abuse, DASH founder Lynne Russell says it is also a powerful tool for combating it. Young people and adults from the U.S. and more than 40 other countries have visited her website. She is confident that message will be heard and her daughter’s story will help keep other teens safe.