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Broken Hearts, Twisted Arms, Shattered Lives

Teen dating abuse affects one in three young people. What every educator should know.

Adults coo about puppy love, or shrug at the infatuations of teenagers. Often, from our perspective, these hot and heavy love affairs are like fireworks. They flame and then harmlessly fizzle. Right?


One in three U.S. adolescents say they’ve experienced some kind of abuse—physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal—in their romantic relationships, and one out of 10 have been purposefully hit, slapped, or physically hurt by their boyfriend or girlfriend, according to data collected by Break the Cycle and its youth-oriented project, loveisrespect. This adds up to 1.5 million high school students last year alone.  

Many more teens are in relationships that, if not exactly like Rihanna and Chris Brown, are nonetheless unequal and unhealthy with one partner dominating the other. “Who are you texting? Let me see your phone,” mimics Maryland high school teacher Erika Chavarria. 

This is not 1975 or 1989, or even 2001. What contemporary media presents to teens and tweens as “love” today is actually about sex and control. Flip through a Peoplemagazine: See then, 17-year-old Kardashian sibling Kylie Jenner pairing up with 25-year-old rapper Tyga. Rumors of a sex tape! Or, turn on the radio: Hear Justin Bieber crooning to his “prize possession.” 

Add in 24/7 access to hand-held technology, including apps that geo-track a sweetheart’s every move, and it is no wonder that nearly 20,000 13- to 17-year-olds reached out to the loveisrespect hotline last year. 

At best, we’re talking about students distracted from learning. At worst, we’re remembering the teen who retired Ohio teacher Deloris Rome Hudson will never forget: The one strangled to death by her boyfriend, one month before her high school graduation. 

 Today’s educators need to be alert to the signs of abuse. But stopping abuse isn’t enough. We equally need to prevent it. And that can happen from the youngest grades on up, when we help students understand what a healthy relationship looks like, and know that they deserve that instead. Learning how to develop and maintain positive relationships is part of the social and emotional learning that keeps us all safe and happy—and leads to academic success. 

The importance of this issue is why dozens of NEA members participated in a workshop, led by Sarah Colomé of Break the Cycle, at the NEA Joint Conference on Concerns of Minorities and Women last year. 

“You have this unique and powerful connection to students that not a lot of other adults do,” Colomé says. “An educator can be the guide to recognition of self-worth, and recognition of the resources that are available.”

Seeing the signs of trouble

Standing in the doorway to her Wilde Lake High School classroom, Chavarria observes the interactions among teenagers in the halls. Most of what she sees isn’t so sweet. “Generally what I’m seeing are relationships that are pretty unhealthy with few instances of equal partnership and respect.”

When lovebirds march lockstep, arm in arm, is the closeness a choice? Or is it an act of control to isolate a victim from friends? “You can see the partner grab their hand in that way,” says New York college student Trendha Hunter, a member of the loveisrespect teen advisory board. 

Consider that kiss by the lockers: Sign of affection or statement of ownership? “In high school, all the time, there’d be boyfriends making their girlfriends skip class to make out in front of the lockers, or making them make out in front of their friends,” says Hunter. 

Skipped classes, missed homework, and lagging grades are warning signs to talk to a school counselor. “You see people whose grades go down because there’s this whole, ‘Oh, no, you’re not going to do homework with me!’” says Hunter. “The partner thinks your free time is theirs.”

Advocates also point out it’s not always a story of boy abuses girl. “Females are just as clingy and abusive as men,” says Hunter. Also important to keep in mind: same-sex relationships are not immune from abuse. In fact, the threat of outing a partner can be a controlling tactic to trap a victim.

“We tend to define abuse in terms of what we know from domestic violence among adults, but it does look different among teenagers,” says Jasmine Uribe, a manager at loveisrespect. Our definition should include not only physical abuse, but also sexual, verbal, emotional, and digital abuses.

“It can appear in a lot of different ways,” warns Colomé. “Educators should keep that more holistic view of violence in mind.”

Digital abuse may be the most invisible to adults, but it is prevalent among the tech generation. “There is a lot of pressuring for nude pics, or pressure to give up your passwords for all of your social media. And then when things don’t go well, there are all the put downs on Facebook,” says Hunter.

Constant texting, like hundreds of times a day, to ask, “Where are you? Who are you with?” is not uncommon. “Technological abuse is power control through digital means,” says Uribe. “People usually think of texting and social media, but it can go further. Think about GPS locating apps.”

The spectrum of teen dating

Last year, Chavarria had a student—“a stunningly beautiful girl, intelligent and athletic”—who was shoved to the ground by her boyfriend during soccer practice. Chavarria was called to intervene, and she offered not just a listening ear but also a physical barrier between the exes during class changes. 

Deloris Rome Hudson’s experience is even more haunting: She remembers a popular girl who was dominated by her drop-out boyfriend, and then strangled. Of course, Rome Hudson mourns the victim, but she also thinks: “Here’s this guy, and I don’t know what would have helped him, but that’s one I wish I would have gotten to….”

But most teen relationships are not violent. Most dwell in the broad expanse between good and vicious: the land of the unhealthy relationship. 

Danielle Gindele is a digital peer advocate—the person in the ether who responds when teens text or chat to the loveisrespect hotline. “The most frequent chat I get is somebody unsure about whether their relationship is unhealthy,” says Gindele. 

If you have to ask the question…the answer is likely yes, but Gindele puts it this way: “Listen to your gut.” 

The problem is, she says, “Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of education for young people on what a healthy relationship looks like. Most schools just don’t have the space for it.” But that kind of social and emotional learning is what prevents abuse, and makes it possible for students to learn how to develop and maintain positive relationships into adulthood.

Resources are available for educators who want to establish the importance of healthy relationships. Join your students in clicking through the “Relationship Spectrum” on It reveals different dating scenarios—“your partner randomly stops by your job, even though you told them it makes you uncomfortable”—and asks students to choose whether the scenario indicates a healthy, unhealthy, or abusive relationship.

 More in-depth is the loveisrespect “Start Talking” curriculum, which is co-facilitated by educators and students in 10 40-minute sessions. “The most effective and sustainable way to make change is to adopt a curriculum and mandate its use,” says Uribe. 

However you approach the issue, it’s important to “be willing to learn from your students,” Colomé says. 

For Chavarria, this means creating a classroom culture that is open, trusting, positive, and youth-centered. She connects her Spanish curriculum to real-life issues and relies on restorative practices, like classroom circles. “We have created such an amazing environment of trust,” she says. “(The circle) is a 15-minute investment of time that is so worth it. It’s a game-changer.”

This isn’t just a professional issue for Chavarria. It’s personal. Years ago, as a high school student, she was abused by her boyfriend. “In my case, I was an athlete, and a singer, and I did well in school, and I think he was attracted to that at first…but when you’re a high schooler and you’re not mature, or you don’t grow up in an environment where women are powerful and strong and those are good qualities, you start to feel weak. Instead of being proud of your partner, you start to feel like you have to break her down.”

It took the intervention of an adult friend to convince Chavarria to help her see her self-worth, get a restraining order, and end the relationship. “Knowing that I had her, and how that helped me get away, makes me so motivated to be that person for my students,” she says.   


Consider that kiss by the lockers: Sign of affection or statement of ownership?

— Erika Chavarria, teacher, Wilde Lake high school, Columbia, Md.

20,000 13- to 17-year-olds reached out to the loveisrespect hotline last year.

“Technological abuse is power control through digital means. People usually think of texting and social media, but it can go further. Think about GPS locating apps.” 

— Jasmine Uribe, leadership and engagement manager, loveisrespect

When lovebirds march lockstep, arm in arm is the closeness a choice? Or is it an act of control to isolate a victim from friends?  

— Trendha Hunter, member,  loveisrespect teen advisory board

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.