Megan Grant is only 15, but she knows it's not right when a boy calls his girlfriend "bitch."
When she walks down the polished red-and-white hallways of Conard High School in West Hartford, she sometimes sees boys acting superior and demanding toward their girlfriends.
But what really got to her was seeing one of her friends being harassed by a boyfriend who constantly sent messages to her cellphone.
"I noticed that he would text her all the time, checking up on her," Grant said.
She wanted to help, but at first wasn't sure how. She ultimately decided to start a new club to learn more about how to help teenagers trapped in unhealthy relationships and to empower girls to speak up for themselves. Grant, a sophomore, invites a guest speaker each month to the after-school club of about 20 students to talk about teen dating violence and related issues.
"The message is it's OK to respect yourself," she said.
People tend to think that "domestic violence" results from a fight between adult couples in the privacy of their own homes.
But recent studies show that violence can happen just as readily between boys and girls. It happens in high schools, but is also being documented among tender middle-schoolers.
And it's more prevalent than one might expect: Surveys show that the rate of teen dating violence in Connecticut is higher than the national average.
The issue is expected to get some prominent attention from a legislative committee on domestic violence, which plans to recommend solutions Monday to a full spectrum of domestic violence issues, including whether schools should be required to teach teenagers how to avoid dating violence.
"It's actually a pretty sizable problem," said state Rep. Mae Flexer, D- Killingly, who heads the legislative task force on domestic violence. "Eighteen percent of teens will experience dating violence before they graduate from high school."
That figure was reported in a 2007 state Department of Public Health survey, which found that 18.6 percent of high school seniors reported an experience with dating violence in the past 12 months.
The survey also found that in grades 9 through 12 combined, 13.4 percent of Connecticut students reported being hit, slapped or physically hurt by their partners in the past year, compared with 9.9 percent nationally.
Violence among dating teenagers is hardly limited to Conard. It permeates many high schools and homes in Connecticut and cuts across every socioeconomic group, experts say.
Teen dating violence is a subject adults don't like to talk about and teens often make excuses for, but it can be deadly.
Just last month, a 13-year-old boy was charged with shooting his 13-year-old ex-girlfriend in the head in New Haven. She was lucky; the bullet grazed her temple and she survived.
The state health department report surveyed 2,072 randomly selected students. Among its findings were that Hispanic students (17.1 percent) are more likely than white students (12.4 percent) or black students (12 percent) to have experienced dating violence in the past year, and that boys are about as likely as girls to be assaulted.
"Young women who are physical think that girls can hit their boyfriend because they're a girl and he's big and they can't hurt him, so that makes it OK," said AJ Pearlman, state policy attorney for Break the Cycle, a national nonprofit organization working to end teen dating violence.
The Connecticut survey measured only physical violence. But much of dating violence also involves emotional and psychological abuse, which includes intimidation and criticism.
"I see boyfriends pushing girlfriends into lockers, calling them names and following them down the hall, whispering things," said Sky Loth, 17, a student at Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk who belongs to a student activist organization combating teen dating violence.
Another recent survey of 1,242 high school students in southeastern Connecticut found that 18 percent of students experienced emotional abuse in a dating relationship, said Cathy Zeiner, executive director of the Women's Center of Southeastern Connecticut, which took the survey.
The same survey showed that 80 percent of students say teen dating violence happens in their school and that 50 percent said additional education about dating violence is needed, Zeiner said.
Cellphones, the Internet and even GPS systems have given abusers more tools to stalk and bully their partners anywhere — without detection.
"It's not unusual to see them using cellphones and text messages to sort of keep control on each other. That's a real problem," Zeiner said.
A survey by Liz Claiborne Inc. in 2007 found that 30 percent of teens say they are text-messaged 10, 20 or 30 times an hour by a partner inquiring where they are, what they're doing or who they're with.
And parents, teachers and even friends usually have no idea it's going on.
"A lot of it is happening at home, with texting or instant messaging on the computer, so not everyone is aware of what's happening," said Taylor Dawson, 17, of Greenwich High School.
Experts say abusive behavior as part of an emotional relationship often starts as early as middle school, and is really just an extension of bullying.
It begins with verbal abuse and an attempt to control and keep track of the partner, said Melanie Danyliw, director of education and training at the Women's Center of Greater Danbury.
"It could be something like 'Why are you eating that? You've been gaining weight,'" said Danyliw, whose agency teaches three-day healthy relationship programs upon request at area high schools.
In some cases the abuser tries to control and limit what the partner does, saying things like "I never get to see you," she said.
"Friends can see that this person isn't treating you nicely," Danyliw said. "They may say, 'You don't deserve to be treated like that.' In extreme cases, it leads to physical abuse."
Part of the problem is that teens are just entering their first relationships and don't have any experience with what constitutes a healthy relationship.
"Lots of girls are just learning how to have a relationship. Lots of times it's hard for girls to tell the difference between a healthy relationship and emotional abuse unless it's a big difference, like hitting," Grant said. "Being a teenage girl, you just want validation from a guy and are willing to do a lot of things."
Reach Them EarlyEducating students early is key, experts say.
"If we're going to ever eliminate domestic violence, we need to reach them in their first relationship," Zeiner said "We need to set the tone for relationships and understanding of relationships for the rest of their lives."
Experts attribute teen dating violence to several factors. Some say that teens are likely to mimic parents who are in an abusive relationship.
There is also the theory that gender stereotypes in video games, movies and TV that portray a hyper-violent view of masculinity influence behavior: The men earn respect by instilling fear, while the women are dependent on the man for protection, Danyliw said. By the time students reach high school, they are so used to these messages that they no longer see it as that bad, she said.
"People in high school, especially the girls, they know it's going on but they just turn a blind eye to it because they are worried about their status," Grant said.
Some experts say that over time, the accumulation of sexist messages promotes a casual devaluing of women in general. A coach, for example, who calls the boys on a team "ladies" or someone who says "you throw like a girl" sends the message that it's OK to disparage women, Danyliw said.
Some experts believe the foundations of healthy relationships should be introduced as early as preschool through rudimentary lessons in nonviolent conflict resolution, anti-bullying strategies and Internet safety.
Experts say teen dating violence isn't new, but has simply emerged from behind a veil of privacy during the past decade or so.
"It's just become more permissible to talk about it. As a society now, we have matured enough to not be afraid to admit these things are happening. What's changed is willingness of people now to admit something needs to be addressed," Danyliw said.
The highly publicized beating of pop singer Rihanna by her then-boyfriend Chris Brown, who was 19 at the time, brought the issue home to many teens last February.
The National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have has now identified domestic violence and sexual assault as a public health and societal problem and is putting money and effort into prevention work.
In Connecticut, the legislative task force on domestic violence is exploring ways to educate more students about how to prevent domestic violence. Among the possibilities is requiring schools to teach dating violence prevention, much as Rhode Island, Virginia, Ohio, Nebraska and Texas have done.
Rhode Island law requires school districts to develop dating violence policies, provide training to teachers and administrators starting in the seventh grade and teach an age-appropriate dating violence curriculum in grades 7 through 12.
The Connecticut legislature considered a similar bill last year, but legislators were squeamish about setting unfunded mandates and the bill died, Zeiner said.
Connecticut suggests, but doesn't require, that schools offer instruction on dating violence and how to calmly solve interpersonal problems in the health curriculum, said Bonnie J. Edmondson, an education consultant for the state Department of Education.
Some school systems do offer some instruction, but it can be inconsistent and often cursory. Some cover healthy relationships in health class, while others bring in consultants to teach three-day seminars that cover such issues as date rape. In many cases, these programs are threatened by budget cuts and meet resistance from parents worried about exposing their children to such issues.
Parents think it's not happening in their town, Danyliw said. "But parents should be concerned and education is the best intervention and protection there is," she said. "I think we've come to the recognition that we have to do something about it," said Linda Blozie, director of public affairs for the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "It's not just for teens when they are in school — it's wherever they're frequenting."
Combating the problem will require a coordinated community response that helps victims stay safe and hold offenders accountable, Blozie said.
"If you and I are in a relationship and I'm beating you up, it shouldn't be a secret," Blozie said. "Everywhere you turn, there should be a place you can go for safety.
"If you're an offender, everywhere you go, you are being held accountable for your behavior. The message should be, 'What you did is not OK.'"Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun