Taking Action Against Domestic Violence: Teen Dating 101 Is Making an Impression

From friendships to first loves, high school memories can last a lifetime! But, not all of them are good!

Melissa Dohme barely survived her high school sweetheart.  She was stabbed 32 times by the young man who had made her the center of his world.  For over two years, their courtship was picture perfect, or so people thought.

"He stabbed me right here in the shoulder,  in the back of the neck", remembers Melissa. "He went back over and started right here by the ear."

Melissa, still recovering emotionally and physically from the attack, is now an advocate. She's using that near death experience to save teens who may be heading down the same road of an abusive relationship, like she did.

Melissa is a frequent guest speaker at local schools, including Countryside High School in Clearwater, her hometown. Soft spoken, Melissa has made a lasting impression on students each time she's spoken at their "Teen Dating 101" program.

"She just showed so much courage that she was able to escape a situation like that," said Angela Booth, who wrote about Melissa's visit for the high school newspaper.

Countryside High School created Teen Dating 101 six years ago with the help of The Haven of RCS Domestic Violence Center, which is the state certified DV center covering Central and Northern Pinellas County. The North  Pinellas Chapter of the Greater Federation of Women's Clubs helped create the program too – the inspiration came directly from a survivor of domestic violence who happens to be a member of the club.

"I can almost see their faces change when the speakers mention things that relate to them directly – like do their boyfriends insist on taking their cell phones and seeing who they're messaging, reading their emails and texts. That's very controlling and these are indicators of an abusive relationship that some of these kids never realized before," explained survivor Laurie Auth.  

Each October, the Cougars mark national DV awareness month by hosting Teen Dating 101 – first during class and then, in the evening, so that families can come. This instructor from The Haven has been part of the program for years and says she has seen it all! 

"The biggest change I've noticed is that girls have become more violent," notes The Haven's Jennifer Saulpaugh. "I almost have as many boys in the classrooms saying they've been abused, as I have girls."  

Teens who've attended the program help spread the lessons learned "friend to friend"…and advocates say that sometimes that's the BEST way to get through.  

"They just don't know! They think the person who wants to be with them all the time and is extremely jealous, that it's because of love," said The Haven Director Chris Warwick. "We know it's not, but somebody needs to tell them that! It used to be that your grandmother or your mother said ‘Oh honey you're going to fall in love lots of times before you find the right person.' But now everything teens see in music, movies, books says you find this person and it's for LIFE! It's not always that way! We lack that generational culture that we used to have," explained Warwick. "We know that we can build bigger and bigger shelters but that's not going to stop domestic violence. We need to do prevention."

17-year old Asia, another student who's been to Teen Dating 101, was also impacted by the survivor stories she heard in the class. "The girl that came, Melissa, she dated this guy for almost two years and they were perfect!" she said shaking her head. "And then, just out of nowhere, he went crazy and stabbed her! It's crazy that you could be with a person that long and not know that they could be that type of a person. That really got my attention." 

Advocates see it differently and TEACH these teens to THINK DIFFERENTLY, too. The common phrase "it came out of nowhere" is far from accurate, experts say. The warning signs are always there, says The Haven – sometimes subtle, sometimes not. That's why the check list they give every single student that attends the class is so important. "Most people are NOT honest with themselves about it," said Asia who read over the entire list with her grandmother. "But you know in here what is honest, what is true to you." She said with her hand over her heart.

An amazing thing happened after one of these students attended the class last year. It involves that checklist! See for yourself on October 16, 2013 at 7pm – the debut of our fifth Annual Taking Action Against Domestic Violence 1-Hour Special!

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