1 of 5 Idaho teen girls say they’ve been hurt or ‘controlled’ by their boyfriends

Alyssa Wainaina, a Renaissance High School student and teenage ambassador for the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.
Alyssa Wainaina, a Renaissance High School student and teenage ambassador for the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. kjones@idahostatesman.com

The faces of domestic violence victims are younger than you may guess.

On Dec. 4, a 17-year-old boy allegedly stabbed his ex-girlfriend, also 17, during an argument outside of their high school in Nampa. Wyatt Weist reportedly admitted to police that he was trying to kill the girl, telling them that after she left him, “I blame her for my mental state today,” court documents state.

On the same day, 19-year-old Ransom Williams was sentenced in Caldwell after he pleaded guilty to attempted strangulation against his 18-year-old pregnant fiancee. Williams was accused of punching the woman, kicking her in the head and attempting to strangle her in May, according to court documents in the case.

The cases are just two examples of an ongoing problem that law enforcement and advocates struggle to end.

Nationwide, one in three adolescents will be the victim of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that nearly 1.5 million high school students in the U.S. are physically abused by dating partners each year. About 21 percent of girls and 13 percent of boys report physical or sexual abuse by a dating partner.

23% of female students in ninth-12th grades reported a dating partner tried to control or emotionally hurt them during the last year, according to the 2017 Idaho Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

Alyssa Wainaina, a 17-year-old student at Renaissance High School in Meridian, is unwilling to settle for the current culture. She and a handful of other youth activists with the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence work to encourage tolerance and promote equality among teenagers while ending gender-based violence.

Middle- and high-school students may make sexist, derogatory jokes or touch a girl without permission. Each time, Alyssa said, the incident represents more than just what happened in the moment.

“It really is a cultural issue I see ripple into school things,” she said. “The things that are accepted by my peers and people with authority need to change.”

Like others, she sees parallels in recent public criticism of politicians, entertainers and journalists accused of sexual harassment. Such incidents have been positive when the accused are held accountable, she said, and discouraging when they are not.

“Some of us are starting to reflect on our own culture and that this a deep-rooted issue in our country,” Alyssa said. “The first step to change is actually admitting that there’s a problem. The next is actually through working with the community.”

It starts with education

That community, in turn, has responded.

The Women’s and Children’s Alliance in Boise offers two educational methods in which community engagement specialist Tracy Darling-DeMarcus teaches lessons about relationships and domestic violence.

Break the Cycle educates teenagers, often in classrooms, about healthy relationships, what to look for in bad relationships and how students can work together to help end the problem.

In Their Shoes gives students real examples of unhealthy relationships and asks them to make decisions about how to handle the situation. One of those is based on a murder-suicide that actually happened. The activity, also used by Boise police, offers real examples of complex situations and allows students to practice problem-solving.

Darling-DeMarcus visits schools and classrooms at the request of individual teachers, so the presentations are not district-wide. But this school year, the WCA has involved more than 600 students in them so far, and will reach about 1,000 by the end of the year. The effort is intended to be proactive, rather than reactive after a tragedy happens.

Alyssa and three other Treasure Valley students volunteer as the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence’s youth advocates. They engage with their classmates, through conversation, workshops, poster campaigns and other outreach methods, trying to promote the positive messages they learn through the coalition.

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Bryan Lyda, program specialist for the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. Katherine Jones kjones@idahostatesman.com

All four are women of color. Bryan Lyda, the coalition’s program specialist, said he believes some of the solutions to domestic violence are in the voices of women who are listened to the least.

“(The coalition) wants to look at what is the root cause of violence, and we see that as devaluing humanity,” Lyda said. “At the end of the day, men hurt women because they don’t see them as valuable. And certain women are seen as even less valuable by our society.”

The coalition since 2006 has also joined with community and tribal domestic and sexual violence programs to offer statewide abuse prevention programs in rural schools and communities.

And law enforcement is also well aware that domestic violence also happens in teenage relationships, said Boise Police Cpl. Sherri Cameron.

Youth presents another challenge, she said: Teens who may be in their first relationship don’t yet have the experience to know what is considered healthy behavior. They also may not know how to get help if they feel unsafe.

21% of 12th-grade female students reported being forced to do sexual things they did not want with someone they were dating or going out with in the last year, according to the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

5% of 12th-grade male students reported the same thing.

14.4% is the national average for 12th-grade female students.

A lack of positive role models can exacerbate that. Christine Davis, communications manager for the WCA, said students are 50 percent more likely to be in abusive relationships if they’re observing abuse in their own homes, a statistic cited nationwide.

Just as in cases involving older adults, Cameron said, an abusive partner will often exhibit controlling behaviors. Those can include isolating a victim, controlling what a victim wears or how they put on makeup, and checking their phone or social media accounts.

Some Idaho measures are showing improvement. In 2007, 13.6 percent of this state’s high school students reported experiencing physical violence by a dating partner. By 2017, that dropped to 7.8 percent, said Kelly Miller, the Idaho coalition’s executive director. The 2017 national average is 9.6 percent.

It’s unclear how much can be attributed to these various programs — and there’s much work left to do. Breaking the 2017 statistics down by gender shows a worryingly high number of female high school students in Idaho still face physicial, sexual or emotional abuse.

10% of female students experienced physical dating violence one or more times during the last year, according to the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

5% of male students reported the same thing.

How to help as a parent

Combating this problem can require education for parents as well. When trying to help a victim, Cameron said, parents and adults should remember to validate that victim’s feelings. Focus less on trying to control the situation, she said, and remind them that they have a right to a violence-free life.

“As a society, we need to understand that victims in (these) relationships do have genuine, real feelings for abusers,” she said.

Statistics suggest teen dating violence often goes unreported and unpunished.

From research done in 2005, national advocacy group Love Is Respect concluded that only one-third of teens who were in an abusive relationship ever told someone.

The group cites other studies and surveys from the past 13 years: In 2004, a full 81 percent of parents believed teen dating violence was not an issue or admitted they didn’t know if it was an issue. While 82 percent of parents felt confident in 2009 that they could recognize warning signs of teen dating violence, only 58 percent of those questioned correctly identified those signs.

It is important for adults to take teenagers’ dating issues seriously, said Bea Black, executive director of the WCA.

For example, she said, a teen may consider texting with a partner a “relationship,” while an adult may not think such a simple interaction qualifies. The teenager is invested in what’s happening, however, and if that texting involves abuse, it is a real problem that impacts lives.

“If it’s real to them, then it’s real to us,” Black said.

15% of female students in ninth-12th grades reported having been physically forced to have sexual intercourse during the last year, according to the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

4% of male students reported the same thing.

The WCA also watches for signs of suicidal thoughts in victims. That, again, is a broader concern related to domestic abuse that remains just as relevant in teens. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline warns that domestic violence survivors have higher rates of suicidal thoughts, citing studies and medical journals that say as many as 23 percent of survivors attempt suicide, compared to only 3 percent among people never exposed to domestic violence.

Some cases do see criminal charges and punishment, such as in Williams’ case after he pleaded guilty to felony attempted strangulation. Five other felonies were dismissed as part of his plea agreement.

Williams was sentenced to three years of felony probation with 60 days in jail and 90 days of discretionary jail time. He has a two- to five-year underlying prison sentence that could be enforced if he were to violate the circumstances of his probation. He must also complete 52 weeks of domestic violence treatment.

Weist awaits trial, charged as an adult with attempted first-degree murder connected to the incident at Columbia High School. His next scheduled court appearance is on Tuesday for a preliminary hearing — an early step at which a judge will decide if his charges merit a full jury trial.

Need help?

▪  The WCA’s domestic violence crisis hotline: 208-343-7025.

▪  The Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline: 208-398-HELP (4357).

▪  The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), or go online at domesticshelters.org.

Warning signs of abuse

You may be in an abusive or unhealthy relationship if your partner:

  • Intimidates or threatens you, your family or your pets
  • Insults you in public
  • Obsesses with knowing what you are doing.
  • Limits where you go, what you do and whom you see.
  • Monitors your phone or online activity.
  • Follows you or shows up uninvited all the time.
  • Destroys your things.
  • Touches you in ways that hurt or scare you.
  • Makes you have sex in ways or at times that are uncomfortable to you.