Olson, New York Times, January 3, 2009
She was 17 when she met her boyfriend, and 20 when she died at
his hands. In between, Heather Norris tried several times to
leave the relationship, which was fraught with control and
abuse, before she was killed — stabbed, dismembered and
discarded in trash bags. Her death in 2007 in Indianapolis is
one of several stemming from abuse in teenage dating
relationships that have spurred states and communities to search
for new ways to impress on adolescents — and their parents and
teachers — the warning signs of dangerous dating behavior and
what actions are not acceptable or healthy.
Heather Norris, 20, was killed by her boyfriend in Indianapolis,
where officers in schools are being trained to recognize abuse.
Texas recently adopted a law that requires school districts to
define dating violence in school safety codes, after the 2003
stabbing death of Ortralla Mosley, 15, in a hallway of her
Austin high school and the shooting death of Jennifer Ann
Crecente, 18, two years ago. Rhode Island in 2007 adopted the
Lindsay Ann Burke Act — prompted by the murder of a young woman
by a former boyfriend — requiring school districts to teach
students in grades 7 through 12 about dating abuse.
New York recently expanded its domestic violence law to allow
victims, including teenagers in dating relationships, to obtain
a restraining order against an abuser in family court rather
than having to seek help from the criminal justice system.
Legislators were moved to act after a survey by the New York
City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene showed that dating
violence had risen by more than 40 percent since 1999, when the
department began asking students about the problem.
Although there are no definitive national studies on the
prevalence of abuse in adolescent relationships, public health
research indicates that the rate of such abusive relationships
has hovered around 10 percent. Experts say the abuse appears to
be increasing as more harassment, name-calling and ridicule
takes place among teenagers on the Internet and by cellphone.
“We are identifying teen dating abuse and violence more than
ever,” said Dr. Elizabeth Miller, an assistant professor of
pediatrics at the School of Medicine at the University of
California, Davis, who began doing research on abuse in teenage
dating relationships nearly a decade ago.
Dr. Miller cited a survey last year of children ages 11 to 14 by
Liz Claiborne Inc., a clothing retailer that finances teenage
dating research, in which a quarter of the 1,000 respondents
said they had been called names, harassed or ridiculed by their
romantic partner by phone call or text message, often between
midnight and 5 a.m., when their parents are sleeping.
Such behavior often falls under the radar of parents, teachers
and counselors because adolescents are too embarrassed to admit
they are being mistreated.
They can seek help from the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline,
where calls and hits to its Web site, loveisrespect.org, doubled
in November over the previous month. Awareness of the help line
has grown since it was started in early 2007.
Most of the calls come from girls, often in response to
relentless texting or efforts by boys to dictate what they do or
While texting that runs to 200 or 300 messages a day can be a
prelude to abusive behavior, William S. Pollack, a Harvard
University psychologist and the author of “Real Boys” (1998) and
“Real Boys’ Voices” (2000) about boys and masculinity, said his
research had found that “usually when adolescent boys get
involved with girls, they fall into the societal model which we
call ‘macho,’ where they need to show they are the ones in
Actions like nonstop texting or phoning often are efforts “to
gain control back,” said Dr. Pollack, who is the director of the
Center for Men and Young Men at McLean Hospital in Belmont,
Reacting to the killings of Heather Norris and other girls by
their romantic partners, Indianapolis recently started a program
to train police officers in public schools to recognize the
early signs of abuse in relationships. Last month, a group of
Indianapolis organizations won a $1 million grant from the
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to help schools tackle the issue,
part of $18 million in grants to 10 communities to help break
patterns where children exposed to violence at home repeat it in
their adult relationships.
The foundation, based in Princeton, N.J., decided to fund
preventive efforts based on research, including from the Centers
of Disease Control and Prevention. In the C.D.C.’s 2007 survey
of 15,000 adolescents, 10 percent reported physical abuse like
being hit or slapped by a romantic partner. Nearly 8 percent of
teenagers in the survey said they were forced to have sexual
Rhode Island now teaches students about dating abuse after
Lindsay Ann Burke’s killing.
Dating abuse victims, the center found, are more likely to
engage in binge drinking, suicide attempts, physical fights and
sexual activity. And the rates of drug, alcohol and tobacco use
are more than twice as high in abused girls as in other girls
the same age.
“Few adolescents understand what a healthy relationship looks
like,” Dr. Miller said.
Adolescents often mistake the excessive attention of boys as an
expression of love, she said.
Kayla Brown, 18, was among them. At first, her high school
boyfriend made a great impression last year when he “called my
mother to introduce himself,” said Ms. Brown, a senior at an
Indianapolis charter school.
Then he began “calling me every hour to see where I was and what
I was doing,” she said. Finally, during an argument he slammed a
chair into a cafeteria table and raised his fist.
She confided in her mother, who has suffered domestic violence,
and followed her advice to break off the relationship. But it
was not easy. For months, she had friends accompany her in the
school hallways, even to the bathroom, to make sure she was not
alone with him.
Deborah Norris, Heather Norris’s mother, said her daughter’s
relationship with Joshua Bean also began innocuously but rapidly
“When he would call or text her, she had to answer right away or
there was trouble,” Ms. Norris said. “She became quiet and
withdrawn around him, and that wasn’t like her.”
“She hadn’t seen him in four months,” she added, “and was
getting ready to go to court because she had filed battery
charges against him.”
Mr. Bean was convicted in Heather’s killing last September.
Ms. Norris, an accident investigator for the police, said, “What
happened to Heather really opened the eyes of police, the people
I work with, who used to look at domestic violence differently,”
seeing it as a family matter.
What happened to Heather before she was killed is common in
abusive relationships, said Stephanie Berry, the manager of
community health at Clarian Health, a network of Indiana
hospitals, which is leading the program being financed by the
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Many teenagers, Ms. Berry said, “see the jealousy and
protectiveness as ‘Oh, he loves me so much.’ Girls make excuses
for it and don’t realize it’s not about love, but it’s about
controlling you as a possession.”
For Ms. Berry, 43, the issue is personal. Her high school
boyfriend “wanted a commitment right away, which was very
flattering,” she said. But she soon found herself “walking on
eggshells,” she said.
Even after he went to college, she said, the relationship was so
“addictive” that she kept returning — until it “turned violent
and he beat me up when I was 21.”
A study, published last July in The Archives of Pediatrics and
Adolescent Medicine, suggests that such behavior is not unusual.
The study found that more than one-third of the 920 students
questioned were victims of emotional and physical abuse by
romantic partners before they started college.
The Indianapolis program will train older teenagers as mentors
and teachers, coaches and parents as “influencers” who will talk
to sixth, seventh and eighth graders about what is acceptable
behavior in dating.
In her grief, Ms. Norris created heathersvoice.net to help girls
learn when things are amiss in a relationship. “Heather always
thought she could change people,” she said, “so I guess I’m
trying to follow what she wanted.”
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