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Teens learn about healthy relationships

Thursday, February 14, 2013 - 12:01 am

It was just a typical Valentine's Day story: girl meets boy.

A young woman meets a man on a computer-dating site. After the first five minutes of their face-to-face date she knows he is not her type. Over the next months he texts and calls her, but she is not interested. She has a few more dates with other guys. Nothing seems to work out. She stops dating for awhile.

Four months later she arrives at her apartment and notices the front door is unlocked, but she goes in anyway. Standing in her kitchen, wearing a hooded mask, holding a knife and a rope is a man. He tells her he is going to kill her. The two struggle; she breaks away and runs for help. The masked stranger runs away.

After calling the police, they searched her home, looking for clues. When they moved her couch from against the wall, they discovered an open space inside the back with pillows and a chip bag, enough room for a grown man to squeeze in and hide. In her bedroom they discovered a space had been hallowed in to the bottom of the bed where an adult could lay undetected.

It turned out her attacker was the man she had met through Internet dating. He had become angry when she refused another date. He had stalked her, even hiding inside her apartment. On the day she came home early, he had been planning to kill her.

Wednesday afternoon at Whitko High School it was so quiet in the classroom of ninth- and 10-graders one would have thought the room was empty. All eyes were focused on Kelsey Cottrell, BSW, community education coordinator for the YWCA of Northeast Indiana, as she told the story. Cottrell was working with the class to educate them about healthy and unhealthy relationships. The story she told sounded almost like an urban legend, but according to Cottrell it was true.

The YWCA has a special “Eyes Wide Open Program,” which is its healthy relationship awareness program for teenagers. It's a three-day program, and students are encouraged to participate through discussion and, if they are comfortable, by sharing their own stories.With February being National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention month the program came at a good time.

The first day, explained Cottrell, is an eye opener for the students. It lets kids know what forms that abuse can take: physical, verbal, emotional and sexual. The program was started in 2008, she said. Whitko teacher Tanya Gill has invited the YWCA to her health class every year since.

“I try to let every day be student focused, if there is a particular topic they want to talk about we will go over that,” Cottrell said.

On the first day students learned about the cycle a relationship can go through in building up to violence; starting with tension building, which could be arguments, yelling out of nowhere at the victim, accusations, leaving the victim with a feeling of walking on egg shells. This is followed by an explosive incident, which will be released through a violent act. The act may or may not be physical. What follows is the calm phase. The abusers apologize, promise never to do it again, tell the victim how much they love them, buys them flowers or gifts, or the abusers might make excuses for their behavior. The cycle then starts all over again.

In new relationships, Cottrell said, the violence may not be physical, but if the abuser is throwing things, you could be the next.

“I didn't know it took someone seven times to leave a bad situation; that's outrageous,” said student David Blanton, 16.

Blanton said he really likes the information he is getting out of the class. When he was 15 he was in a relationship, and after getting the information Wednesday, he realized it was an unhealthy one. The girl had told him she loved him, shortly into the relationship, something Cottrell said is a warning sign of an unhealthy relationship.

No one knows after they have been dating someone for a short period of time if they love someone, Cottrell told the class. Cottrell warned about stalking, including cyber stalking.

In March 2010, Kaylin Doggendorf, 14, was abducted from her family home in rural Pierceton and strangled by Joshua M. Wright, 17. Wright pleaded guilty to the murder and is currently serving a life sentence. Wright, who had bounced from school to school, was a student at Whitko for one week before being expelled in 2009. Wright, a troubled teen, had stalked Doggendorf, who was never connected to him as more than a friend of a friend.

Betsy Weaver, a substitute teacher for the health class, said it seems girls try to find guys to “fix.” She said that never leads to a healthy relationship.

“You can't fix a person,” Weaver said.

Cottrell said the students respond well to the three-day training and she often has some who stay after class to discuss a problem with her. Cottrell must report any legitimate cases of abuse she uncovers. Sometimes students just want some advice on dealing with friends who they feel are abusing them. Other times students become clients.

“I always tell them, 'Guys, I can sit up here and talk about this all day long. It's when you are ready to talk about things, and come to terms with what you have been through is not OK, that's when the action starts,'” Cottrell said.

In addition to Whitko, Cottrell takes the program to Columbia City, New Haven, East Noble, Eastside, Churubusco, Bluffton, Northrop and Wayne high schools.