TEANECK - If he's jealous, that does not mean he loves you. Same for if she threatens to leave you.
Unfortunately, many teenagers see these as proof of affection, not warning signs of abuse, said Allison Bressler, the co-founder and co-director of A Partnership for Change, an Oradell, Bergen County-based non-profit organization that teaches teenagers to recognize the signs of dating abuse, to seek help and become advocates for themselves and their peers.
"What we try to teach these kids is that abuse, in general, is so much more than being fearful that you are going to be beaten up," Bressler said recently.
"What it is really is a pattern of behavior that instills fear of negative consequences, and what we tend to say to these kids is that if you are not expressing yourself the way you want to, if you are not dressing the way you want to, if you are not doing what you want to because you are afraid that you are going to be yelled at, harassed, put down, broken up with, made fun of, or physically assaulted, then you are being abused in your relationship."
Bressler and Gloria Sgrizzi, the other co-founder and director, are hoping to bring their teen dating violence prevention and education program to Teaneck High School this fall.
Since 2009, the two have run a program called PowerBack at four other high schools in New Jersey. If the organization receives a grant from the Department of State, Teaneck High School will be added, they said.
"The basic concept of PowerBack is about giving students the power back to be advocates, to understand the issue, and to play a role in breaking the cycle of teen dating abuse," Bressler said.
According to the Center for Disease Control, about 10 percent of students report being physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend in the past 12 months.
But Bressler and Sgrizzi said that many of the victims do not report abuse, or tell their friends, who are not well-informed enough to give the best advice.
Many are afraid to tell their families because of the stigma associated with domestic abuse and also because they are afraid to disappoint their parents.
Teaneck schools last month approved a resolution authorizing A Partnership for Change to apply for a grant on its behalf. The group will partner with Jewish Family Services of Teaneck to run workshops and the counseling aspect of the program.
Through forums and assemblies, students learn to recognize the signs of domestic violence and how to respond appropriately. There are also seminars for teachers and parents to educate them on what to watch for and how to respond to students and children who are seeking help.
The program consists of a 90-minute assembly for high school students. The group will then recruit students to become peer leaders, who will meet once a month to become more aware of domestic violence and then hold an awareness ceremony next year.
They also would share real life stories with students.
"We are not in the business of scaring young people," Sgrizzi said. "But we want them to understand the reality. We want them to understand that too often teen dating abuse could escalate into something much worse. It could end in murder, and we have seen it time and time again."
A Partnership for Change has run school assemblies on teen dating violence at Ridgewood and Mahwah high schools.
A 2011 state law requires school districts to adopt a policy to "prevent, respond and educate" students about dating violence. They also must include age-appropriate dating violence education as part of the curriculum for students from grades seven to 12.
"We want to make sure our kids are well educated," said Superintendent Barbara Pinsak, "that they can take care of themselves, that they know what their rights are and what the rights of others are."