One in five high school students in Bexar County will report being abused by someone they are romantically involved with, according to domestic violence experts. These disturbing local trends echo at the national scale: in 2013, one in every five female high school students in the U.S. reported physical and/or sexual abuse by a dating partner, according to the Texas Council on Family Violence (TCVF).

Bexar County is the second highest Texas county, after Harris County which includes Houston, for reported cases of adult domestic violence, according to another TCVF report. Like domestic violence, dating violence is a progressive pattern of abusive behaviors – physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual – that are inflicted on one partner by the other to maintain power or control in the relationship. Many adult and teenage perpetrators and victims alike have trouble identifying their own abusive relationship.

“There is an array of emotions in a relationship between two people, all kinds of emotions, and it’s acceptable and understood,” said Marta Pelaéz, president and CEO of local nonprofit Family Violence Prevention Services, Inc. “But the one emotion that determines and, for me, defines if there’s abuse or not is if one of them is afraid of the other.”

Cases of domestic and dating violence often go unreported, but most that are reported are collected from the National Teen Dating Violence hotline. Texas ranks number two in the nation for call volume to the hotline and San Antonio ranks number four in the state behind Houston, Dallas, and Austin.

Another 2016 study by the American Educational Research Association shows that 10-25% of both male and female students in grades nine through 12 experience both physical and verbal abuse from a dating partner. Such statistics are surprising – especially in teenage populations – but they shed light on a complex issue that spans all socio-economic groups and cultures.

Why Would Someone Abuse Their Partner?

There are many reasons why, but teen dating violence is often different from violence in adult relationships.

“When it comes to adult domestic violence, about 90% of domestic violence is perpetrated by men onto women,” Pelaéz said. “When it comes to teen violence, there is almost 50/50% (split between men and women).”

CEO of Family Violence Prevention Services, Inc Marta Pelaez.
CEO of Family Violence Prevention Services, Inc. Marta Pelaéz. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Pelaéz can’t pinpoint the reason behind why the reported amount of male and female aggressors is nearly equal in teen relationships. Through her work at Family Violence Prevention Services, which offers residential and non-residential resources for victims in abusive relationships, she has observed a number of scenarios. Young men often mimic behavior of abuse learned from father figures while young women, she said, typically lash out physically or verbally in response to abusive behavior by their male partner.

The digital world, namely smartphones and social media, has changed the face of abuse. Technology, Pelaéz said, has made it easier to engage in acts of abuse and, in some cases, surveillance of partners.

“In the case of abuse, (social media) is a constant,” she said. “It offers the opportunity for more frequent controlling behaviors.”

Demanding access to someone’s private text messages, emails, or social media accounts is a form of abuse – a violation of privacy that may seem innocuous at first to many teenagers. But those controlling behaviors can escalate and eventually lead to complete isolation of the victim from family and friends. Some of the worst cases have even ended in death.

Jealousy is a common, yet confusing, element in abusive teenage relationships, Pelaéz said.

“Jealously is possessiveness, it comes from a place of low self-esteem in the victimizer,” she said. “This sense of proprietorship might be a romantic element of the relationship, but that’s where people make mistakes” and misinterpret it.

Domestic and dating abuse are progressive by nature, so misinterpretations can build upon others and become dangerous. It’s only a matter of time before behaviors escalate to a more serious level, Pelaéz said. This is true for both adults and teenagers.

A section of the mural "Breaking the Cycle" at the corner of South Zarzamora and San Fernando streets painted by lead muralist Mary Agnes Rodriguez in 2002. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
A section of the mural “Breaking the Cycle” at the corner of South Zarzamora and San Fernando streets painted by lead muralist Mary Agnes Rodriguez in 2002. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

“(Abuse) never begins with what we see in the newspaper: ‘He put the gun to her head and killed her,’ that’s not something that happens from one moment to the next. That’s preceded by many other things,” Pelaéz said. “(Abuse) might begin being masked as something else, but pretty soon, in retrospect,” the signs of abuse and control are clear.

Victims and perpetrators often subconsciously imitate the behaviors of family members on either side of an abusive relationship. Bearing witness to violence on a regular basis makes it psychologically difficult for many victims to leave their aggressors. As they grow up, children learn “how to conduct (themselves) socially and otherwise” from their parents and their environments, Pelaéz said.

If a girl has watched her own mother endure abuse all of her life, then the girl’s role as a victim is reinforced early on. It is often difficult to part with that behavior as a child grows older.

“When the little girl grows up and she’s in her teen years and finds a partner, she will seek to match her skills with those of a person who has adopted to the counterpart skills (of abuse). That’s why in general terms that victim potentially will seek an abuser, at the unconscious level of course,” Pelaéz said. “That’s where they find a certain level of comfort because that’s their normal, that’s what they grew up knowing.”

Pelaéz has witnessed this truth firsthand with the hundreds of women she and her staff serve at the Battered Women and Children’s Shelter, a facility run by Family Violence Prevention Services, that offers free residential services, therapy, legal and medical assistance, childcare and a suite of other resources to women and children who have recently left abusive environments.

The Battered Women and Children's shelter features free residences, childcare, therapy, and other resources. Photo courtesy of Family Violence Prevention Services, Inc.
The Battered Women and Children’s shelter features free residences, childcare, therapy, and other resources. Photo courtesy of Family Violence Prevention Services, Inc.

An overwhelming number of these women, Pelaéz said, have been in similar relationships since they were teenagers.

Freda Thompson is one of them. From the age of 19, she was in a 21-year abusive relationship with her now ex-husband.

The abuse started “as soon as he moved in with me,” she said. Her ex-husband began controlling her everyday interactions and then escalated to physical abuse if she resisted.

Before she finally left the relationship, a true act of courage, Thompson was completely isolated from her loved ones. She was forced to quit her job and “held hostage” in his home.

“I’ve had my head split open, I’ve had my face reconstructed, and (I’ve had) the mental and emotional abuse, too, like controlling me, controlling sex, controlling money, controlling who I can talk to,” she said. “When I was working he needed to know when I left work, how long it took me to get home from work, and why it took so long.”

Thompson, like most victims, believed this behavior was normal. It wasn’t until she “woke up” one day during a serious, physical altercation with her ex-husband that she realized she needed to leave. She went to the shelter about two months ago and found specialized care, a place to stay, food to eat, and a community of supporters who are helping her get back on her feet after her traumatic experience, she said.

The bulk of Thompson’s abuse occurred in her adult years, but she said more teens should be aware of the “red flags” in such relationships. They should know that they can seek help.

“It can be stopped,” she said.

Community Resources for Victims

Family Violence Prevention Services (FVPS) is just one of several local advocacy organizations that provide invaluable support for domestic abuse victims, and they never turn anyone away. The Bexar County Family Justice Center, the P.E.A.C.E. Initiative, and Awaaz, are three others that offer training programs, free resources for victims, and community-wide awareness education. FVPS even offers healing programs and classes for perpetrators, too.

A lot of preventative teen dating violence initiatives in the city typically occur during February, Teen Dating Violence Prevention and Awareness Month. This year, members of Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Mental Health Clinic gave free classes to teens and parents that included information about the warning signs of dating violence, the use of social media as a control method, and how to respectfully and effectively communicate their feelings to dating partners.

Artwork hangs in a room at the Battered Women and Children's shelter. Photo courtesy of Family Violence Prevention Services, Inc.
Artwork hangs in a room at the Battered Women and Children’s shelter. Photo courtesy of Family Violence Prevention Services, Inc.

But funding for such programs can be hard to come by, Pelaéz said. FVPS receives City, state, and federal funding, but the organization relies heavily on the support of community members who believe in their cause.

“The City has capped funding for our shelter for I can’t remember how many years,” Pelaéz said. “We’re seeing more than three times the people that we used to see, and the resources have not been represented in that increase.”

On Thursday, the City’s Metropolitan Health District will seek City Council approval to apply for a $1,625,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent teen dating violence and youth violence for a five-year term. City officials believe violence is a public health concern, though more often treated as a crime and safety issue.

Experts like Pelaéz believe that violence is often a response to a person’s environment or accepted norms. The new teen dating and youth violence grant would put a special emphasis on the StandUpSA gun prevention and youth violence initiative, but would fund other programs that address the risk factors of teen dating violence as well. Metro Health could not be reached for comment about whether or not the grant would be an additional service they provide for teen dating violence, or if it will be the first.

Addressing Dating Violence in Schools

Abuse at any level has a ripple-effect throughout the lives of the victim and the aggressor. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that teens who have fallen victim to dating violence are more likely to use drugs, consider suicide and have sex with multiple partners.

Lawmakers have attempted to combat dating violence across the country. All Texas school districts are required by House Bill 121, signed into law in 2007 by former governor Rick Perry, to adopt and implement a dating violence policy. Under the bill, school administrators and teachers must meet a number of measures including developing safety plans, providing counseling for affected students and providing preventative sensitivity classes for students and parents. School staff is required to take a special training course and attend development meetings throughout the year.

San Antonio school districts deal with cases of teen dating violence in similar ways. Officials typically provide sensitivity classes, usually in their health classes, defining what abuse is and how to react in such a situation.

Northside Independent School District is the biggest school district in the city with 117 public schools including five specialized magnet high schools. When teachers, counselors, coaches, or administrators learn of an abusive situation in NISD, they immediately contact the parents or guardians of the perpetrator and the victim to assess next steps which could include separation of the students or individual counseling sessions, said NISD Director of Guidance Counseling Kimberley Ridgeley.

For more serious cases, they have the option to get the San Antonio Police Department involved. Beyond that, voluntary counseling is made available to the students at the school.

Like many school counselors across the city, state, and nation, Karla Boulton, Student Teacher Assistance Network (STAN) intervention counselor at Robert E. Lee High School in North East ISD, believes that education can help students prevent or escape a violent relationship. Many, she said, don’t even realize they are in a dangerous relationship to begin with.

At Lee, she gives a special dating awareness presentation to every grade level, and often sees surprised looks on students’ faces when she provides warning signs of teen dating violence – threats to end the relationship, comparisons to other relationships or students, having to ask for permission and victim denial.

“I think it’s also pretty common for young people in a relationship to think they should have to give their phone to someone else so they can go through it to see who they’ve been talking to,” she said. “They don’t recognize that nobody has the right to go through your phone, so a lot of it is really about having conversations at this level.”

Demanding access to someone's phone or social media accounts is an early sign of abusive relationships. Fictional reenactment photo by Scott Ball.
Demanding access to someone’s phone or social media accounts is an early sign of abusive relationships. Fictional reenactment photo by Scott Ball.

NEISD has one STAN counselor on each high school campus and three middle school campuses in the district. These counselors provide group and one-on-one counseling for a variety of issues, including teen dating violence. SAISD has special on-campus social workers and other districts like NISD work through their guidance counselors to address the issue.

Considering the tens of thousands of kids in high schools across the city, advocates like Pelaéz believe it is difficult to adequately monitor and effectively address cases of abuse, let alone prevent them. There is technically legislation that requires educators to raise awareness of violent behavior in relationships, but Pelaéz believes the policies need to be more explicitly defined in order to be truly effective. Education about identifying, reacting to, and preventing teen dating violence should be implemented as a core part of the high school curriculum, she said.

If it’s not a concerted effort where there is a standard number of items related to teen violence, to aggression, that everybody agrees needs to be part of a curriculum, then we’re missing the opportunity altogether,” she said. “There isn’t a policy dictating what it is we’re going to talk about (in the classes), on what is going to be shared, on what the format is, and it’s a shame.”

Certain behaviors can be fostered in children as young as 2 years old at schools and at home, Pelaéz said. Adults can show young people how to react respectfully and calmly to those around them. Sometimes that can make all the difference.

“These are conversations that need to be had with our youth because that’s the opportunity we have to stop those cycles, these generational cycles,” she said. “If we completely discount the opportunity that we have to prevent the next generation falling prey to victimization or perpetrating victimization by excluding them from the conversation, then we’re not being responsible citizens.”

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1?800?799?7233.

For more information and stats on domestic and dating abuse in Texas, click here.

Top image: Breaking the Cycle” at the corner of South Zarzamora and San Fernando streets was painted by lead muralist Mary Agnes Rodriguez in 2002. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

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Camille Garcia is a journalist born and raised in San Antonio. She formerly worked at the San Antonio Report as assistant editor and reporter. Her email is