For millions of teenage girls, the first high school boyfriend is a rite of passage. What most don't realize is that the relationship can spiral into something they never considered -- violence.
But when a group of teenagers from South Kingstown, R.I., was recently asked how many knew someone who was a victim of dating violence, each one of them raised a hand.
"We all see it," said Ellen Thomas, a 16-year-old from South Kingstown. "If not day to day, at least once a week or something in the hallway at school."
Indeed, one in 10 high school girls report being abused by a boyfriend, according to the Department of Justice. And high school girls are exposed to three times more abuse in relationships than adult women.
"I think a lot of parents don't realize how prevalent this actually is in the teenagers' lives," South Kingstown High School health teacher Karen Murphy said. "That this is something that goes on every single day."
Teenagers can sometimes have a harder time controlling their emotions than adults, explained Dr. Lea De Francisci Lis, a child and adolescent psychiatrist affiliated with New York University's Child Studies Center.
"Teenagers are more prone to violence because of their changing hormones and because their brains are still developing," she said. "This makes them more susceptible to mood swings and anger."
Beginning with the 2008-2009 school year, the Lindsay Ann Burke Act requires that all public middle and high schools in Rhode Island teach students about dating violence in their health classes. Teachers foster communication skills for romantic relationships, offering such advice as waiting until you're calm before confronting someone about a problem. They also warn about behavior that seems perfectly harmless but can actually be a precursor to violence, such as incessant phone calls and text messages, and telling a partner what to wear or who to be friends with.
"A lot of kids think that this is normal," Murphy said. "This is how a relationship is supposed to be. 'Oh, he's checking up on me, calling me all the time, isn't that great.' Well, sometimes these are the warning signs we don't pick up."
One of Murphy's students, 16-year-old Sean Newton, said he has already seen how the instruction has helped his peers. "Sometimes the abuser doesn't realize what they're doing is controlling, but they realize that's it not right just from what we learned in school."
The initiative was spearheaded by Ann Burke, a health teacher who runs a memorial fund to raise money for workshops on dating violence for parents and educators. She said schools should be obligated to teach teens the warning signs of abuse and broach the subject directly so students find the strength to leave violent partners. Burke has trained teachers in schools throughout Rhode Island on how to teach students about dating violence. But her actions stem from personal grief.
Her daughter Lindsay, 23, had an abusive boyfriend who got out of control. The three-year relationship began with the boyfriend calling incessantly to keep tabs on her daughter and escalated from there. In 2005, when Lindsay tried to break up with him, he killed her and was later sentenced to life in prison for murder.
"Mothers are supposed to protect their children and there are some times you just can't and that's a heavy burden to live with," said Burke, who is also a middle school health teacher in South Kingstown.
Burke has turned her grief into action, pushing legislators in Rhode Island to require every school district in the state to teach middle and high school students about dating violence.
Through the Lindsay Ann Burke Memorial Fund, a nonprofit organization created in honor of her daughter, Burke has trained teachers in schools throughout Rhode Island on how to educate students on dating violence.
Some critics argue that teachers shouldn't teach about relationships, but that it's a job best left to the parents. People like Burke, however, who support the new laws, say these lessons will not only help teenage girls but might save their lives before abuse spirals out of control unnoticed.