Apryl Cornell was only 15 years old when her boyfriend began abusing her.

“At first everything was good. He was two years older than me and attended my school,” she recalls. ”[But] about four months into the relationship, he started telling me who I could hang out with and what I could wear.”

Cornell says her boyfriend forbade her to wear certain clothes, like shorts, in public. She could only wear them in his presence.

And, to avoid more conflict, she stopped spending time with her friends.

“It was too hard to hang out with them and deal with my boyfriend,” Cornell says.

The abuse soon escalated to physical assaults. During one episode, Cornell’s boyfriend struck her in the head so hard, she blacked out. During another, he tried forcing her to have sex against her will.

“Topless, I ran out of the room to the middle of the staircase that led to where the rest of the family was sleeping,” Cornell says, “Soon, he came out and talked to me. He said he was sorry. He said he loved me.”

She adds, “I was kind of scared, but I made him promise not to hurt me. I was worried that no one would believe me if I told.”

Cornell’s experience is, unfortunately, not unique.

One out of 11 high school students in the United States have experienced some form of physical violence from a boyfriend or girlfriend, with African-American youth experiencing this abuse at a higher rate.

In fact, the CDC’s Youth Behavior Risk Surveillance Study reported that black high-school girls are 80 percent more likely than white girls to be hit, slapped or hurt on purpose by their boyfriends.

It is thought that these abusive relationships mirror behaviors witnessed at home.

“Things like education, income, access to resources, and social disadvantage are also strongly linked to violence,” says Laura J. Hogan, co-director of Start Strong, an 11-site program promoting healthy teen dating, with $18 million in support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The biggest problem lies, Hogan says, in teenagers’ lack of life experience.

“Teenagers don’t have years and years of dating experience to draw from,” she says. “They are learning as they go, learning from the role models they have around them, and figuring things out along the way.”

Teens are more likely to react to conflicts with aggression or violence in order to ‘save face’ in front of their friends, according to Hogan.

“They’re also less likely to challenge abusive behaviors if these are considered normal by their peers,” she says.

Taking it Seriously

When reports of the alleged reconciliation between Chris Brown and Rihanna hit prime-time, critics challenged the example it set for the artists’ young fans. Yet, Hogan says it creates a teachable moment.

“We can’t always control the messages that young people hear and see about relationships in popular culture, or how they react to them, but what we can do is use these incidents… to have conversations with our youth about preventing teen dating violence in their life,” Hogan says.

Cornell, now 19, works through Start Strong Wichita to counter media images condoning dating violence by using her own experiences as a cautionary tale.

“Young people do not believe that dating violence can happen to them,” Cornell says.

To her point, during the Grammys, several young women tweeted comments about Chris Brown that some argued made light of the seriousness of domestic violence.

One tweet read, “He can beat me up all night if he wants.”

Another read, “chris brown could beat me all he wants, he is flawless.”

And, another: “Dude, Chris brown can punch me in the face as much as [he] wants to, just as long as he kisses it.”

Getting out

Cornell, however, lived the seriousness of dating violence for two years before she finally left the relationship.

It took a coincidence — her participation in a play during junior year, called “The Outrage” — to help her see what was happening.

“I was assigned the role of the girl who was being abused,” she recalls. “My abusive boyfriend was in the audience along with my family. When it was over, my mom came up to me and said, ‘You played that way too well.’”

It was her play director who pointed out the hypocrisy of being in a play aiming to prevent teen dating violence while she stayed in her unhealthy relationship. So, Cornell made a choice.

“At first he was mad, but he did leave me alone,” she says. “I started to go back to him several times, but I never did.”

“The more [Cornell] learned about what healthy relationships should be like and how to set healthy boundaries, the more she knew that she had to free herself from her boyfriend,” says Hogan.

WATCH A PSA FROM START STRONG’S INDIANAPOLIS SITE
[youtubevid http://youtube.com/watch?v=dZtjSuMW8Ck]

Each Start Strong site gears its interventions toward middle school students — ages 11 to 14 — in an effort to mentor them prior to entering the dating world.

“We are working with families, friends and the community so that everyone is helping to spread the message that violence and abuse in a relationship is never acceptable,” says Cornell, who works with the Start Strong Wichita program.

According to the CDC, teen dating violence can lead to poor school performance, substance abuse, and suicide attempts. The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control adds increased risk of teen pregnancy, risky sexual behaviors, and unhealthy weight control to that list.

“Rather than trying to repair the damage of dating violence and abuse later in life, [with Start Strong] we are teaching middle school students the skills to have healthy relationships so we can ultimately prevent the violence before it starts,” Hogan explains.