By LaKeshia Myers
I met her on the first day of school in August 2016. I was handing out schedules to all of the students who entered the doors of Groppi High School; they each arrived with the anticipation that comes with the first day of school. Showing off new outfits, talking about what happened during summer break, and meeting new teachers were in store for that day. When she approached the desk to get her schedule she looked at me and said, “You’re new here…what class you teach?” That was my first interaction with Stephanie Jones. We introduced ourselves to each other and I told her that if she needed anything I would do my best to help her—I told all of my students that and I believed it. What I didn’t know at the time was that I had just told a lie.
As the first semester waned on, I got closer to Stephanie and learned more about her life. I learned that she came from a loving family and was close to her parents. She was a mom to a beautiful baby girl, of whom she was fiercely protective. She was a good student; and even though she had struggled in the past, she was able to catch up quickly and excelled in her classes. Stephanie was a mild-mannered student, who was liked by her peers and teachers alike.
During winter break, I happened to be out shopping and I saw a pair of crimson designer pants on sale at a department store. Never one to pass up a good deal, I purchased the pants and said, “I’ll give these to Stephanie when we get back to school.” That day would never come, because Stephanie Jones was murdered by her former boyfriend on Jan. 3, 2017, the day before students would return to school.
February is “Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month” and that is what prompted me to share Stephanie’s story. Stephanie’s death was jarring for our entire school community. It was also the first time I had ever lost a student to teenage domestic violence. I had no idea how prevalent an issue this was amongst young people. I had no idea how abusive Stephanie’s boyfriend had been. I didn’t know the extent of the stalking, kidnapping, and physical violence she had endured. How could I know, she didn’t talk about it much; she just continued to live through her pain. She lived in survival mode.
According to the Domestic Violence Awareness Project, approximately 1.5 million high school students in the United States experience physical abuse from a dating partner. One-quarter of parents don’t talk to their teens about domestic violence. Consequently, the Centers for Disease Control stated that nearly 23% of women and 14% of men who were victims of stalking or physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner first experienced some form of violence from that partner as a teenager. Since Stephanie’s death, I have learned the warning signs of teen dating violence. I know what questions to ask and how to dig deeper to help students who might be in abusive relationships.
Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month encourages parents and adolescents to take an inventory of their relationships. Abuse includes physical, psychological or sexual abuse. If you or someone you know need help, please contact Sojourner Family Peace Center in Milwaukee, which operates a 24-hour confidential hotline at (414) 933-2722. The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at (800) 799-7233. You can also visit youth.gov, loveisrespect.org, breakthecycle.org for conversation starters and resources.