V’Nell DeCosta, president of a local graduate chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, was shocked to discover that the preteen girls she and her sorority sisters mentor in Prince George’s County, were witnessing teen dating violence. The girls told them troubling stories they’d seen and heard about: couples whose arguing got too intense or whose fights turned physical.

What DeCosta and the members of the Upsilon Tau Omega Chapter heard first hand is part of a troubling national trend. According to Break the Cycle, a national agency based in Los Angeles that providing dating abuse prevention programs to youth, one in three teens nationwide is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner. That’s a number that far exceeds rates of other types of youth violence.

And in many cases, the victims do not report the abuse.

“The statistics show that only 33 percent of the teens who are experiencing this have ever told anyone about the abuse,” says DeCosta, quoting data she retrieved from Break the Cycle. “We need to bring this out and let our young people know that we’re here to support you, and to help you.”

So the sorority sisters and their group of mentees- who are in a program called Emerging Young Leaders- decided to host a walk to raise awareness about teen dating violence. The event, which took place last Saturday at Fort Washington Park, was organized and led by the the girls. About 150 people attended and DeCosta said they raised $200 for county domestic violence programs. They also also collected toiletries for survivors in Sheriff High’s Domestic Violence Intervention Program and at My Sister’s Place, a D.C. organization that provides shelter, education and assistance to women and families affected by domestic violence.

Colleen Gallopin, director of training and technical assistance for Break the Cycle, says there are more aspects to the research on the topic that are missing.

“Dating abuse, especially among youth, has been studied...a much shorter time than domestic violence has,” says Gallopin who works in Break the Cycle’s Washington office. “There are still things we want to explore with the research that we don’t know yet,”

For instance, although the research shows that a number of young people are experiencing some kind of violence from a dating partner, Gallopin says steps need to be taken to understand those numbers more clearly.

“The research asks ‘Have you ever been hit by a partner, or hit a partner?’ That’s a yes or no and we can count that, but what we want get to is why? What was the impact?” says Gallopin.

“Sometimes, the answer is self-defense, or perceived self-defense, and that’s very different from ‘I wanted to control my partner.’ We want to look at things behind the number,” she says.

The research on teen dating violence had been limited in the past for a number of reasons, but the fact that many teachers, parents and researchers were unable to take the issue seriously played a factor.

“We had to get to the point where we realized that this was happening in young people’s lives -- that young people are experiencing the same severity of abuse, frequency of abuse, injury and possible homicide that adults are experiencing,” says Gallopin.

She also says that has a lot to do with some adults’ refusal to believe that young love can be that deep.

“As adults, we do have a tendency to minimize the importance of young relationships, I think to our detriment and to the detriment of the young people that we serve because to them, they are not in any way minimal. To them, they are everything,” she says.

Marcia Alexander-Adams, media relations specialist for the chapter, said it was important for parents to take the dating habits of their children seriously.

“Parents, if your child says they’re dating, they’re dating. You can convince yourself that they’re not but if they think they’re dating, they’re dating. It’s not just puppy love,” she says.

Gallopin said that DeCosta and her sorority sisters did a few things that are immensely important in working with the girls. First, they created a comfortable environment for the preteens to talk about dating violence. Break the Cycle’s research shows that one in three young people knows someone who is experiencing or has experienced teen dating violence. It is important to make young people feel comfortable enough to discuss what they have seen or heard.

“We see it over and over. Young people want to talk about this. They see it among their friends, in their schools. Whenever we create a space where it’s safe to discuss it, they open up,” says Gallopin.

Second, they put the young people in charge of organizing the walk. “So often we’re talking about what’s best for young people and how to help young people without any actual young people in the room. We at Break the Cycle and our colleagues try not to let that happen,” says Gallopin.

DeCosta says the payoff of their decision to have the girls plan the walk was immediate. Not only did the teens help plan the event, they also hosted most of the program before the walk.

“They did the prayer and introduced our guest speaker, Prince George’s County sheriff, Melvin C. High, as well as State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks. They kicked off the walk and they felt extremely empowered,” says DeCosta.

High, whose agency boasts a holistic, domestic violence division that seeks to “help people move from being victims to having a constructive future,” was glad to be invited to the walk.

“This is an issue in our country, regardless of race or gender, that people face. This is an issue that is affecting families in our country, so we should not be ashamed to talk about it or to address it, so that this is not a closeted issue,” says High.

Gallopin stresses the importance of getting young people involved in the solution.

“Everything we do in community organizations and schools that want to do this kind of work is youth-driven,” she says. “Meet them where they are. We know that they want to talk about it, we know they have great ideas, and also, if we do something, without getting young people involved and that’s not what they want to do, they’re not going to do it.”

Marshaé Weaver, 13, has been participating in Iota Gamma Omega Chapter’s EYL activities since she was in 6th grade. She said the teen dating violence awareness walk taught her a lot about noticing the warning signs and being catalyst for change.

“We talked about the effects of abuse on communities and families,”says Weaver. “A person who is being abused - their grades may begin to slip, they may withdraw from family and friends and isolate themselves from people,”

Gallopin says that on an individual level, adults can also help to prevent teen dating violence by modeling healthy relationship behavior and interaction between partners, traits she says relationships young people see and hear about in films, television and music, may be lacking.

“It’s about talking about what good, healthy relationships look like. How do you make them work? How do you overcome conflict? It’s OK to argue, but how do you resolve it?” she says.

She also stresses the importance of creating a safe space for teens to talk to adults about relationship issues. Minimizing the situation or dismissing the adolescents’ feelings can cause them to shut down.

“It makes young people feel like you don’t get understand it, so you couldn’t possibly answer their questions about abuse,” says Gallopin. “Be open and non-judgmental. Those are things that we can all do, at minimum,” she says.