By  A n i t a   P e r r y

Valentine’s Day is an opportunity to show our loved ones just how much we care for them. Sometimes we express our love with a card, flowers or kind words. This year I hope Texas parents will expand their Valentine’s Day activities to include talking with their teens about what real love should look like in a dating relationship. We need to spread the word across our state that abuse in teen dating relationships must stop. That effort must start with education and awareness.
A week before this year’s holiday, I spoke at a news conference held to raise awareness about teen dating violence. Among the speakers were two teenagers, Nabil Gomez and Manuel Veloz from Reagan County High School, who bravely stood at the podium to spread the word of the dangers of dating violence to parents, the media, and most impressively their peers. ‘Control is not love’ was the strong message printed on the poster standing behind them.
Nabil and Manuel are part of a Students Taking Action for Respect (or STAR) Team. STAR is a growing community of more than 400 youth leaders across the state carrying the message of teen dating violence prevention to their classmates and community groups. The first program of its kind in the nation, STAR has reached more than 13,000 students in 150 Texas communities since its inception.
I’m so proud of Nabil and Manuel and the hundreds of other youth around the state who lend their strong voices to the growing chorus combating the dangers of dating violence. I am proud of them because sometimes it’s hardest to confront a friend, more than anyone else, with the message that how they are being treated by a girlfriend or boyfriend is just not right. As much as we adults hope that our message is heard, teens often listen best to their peers.
Unfortunately, relationship abuse among teenagers is all too common, partly because many don’t understand what constitutes inappropriate behavior. While physical and sexual abuse are the obvious offenses, verbal and emotional attacks can also frighten and control a person in a dating relationship. We must also recognize that this abuse victimizes young men as well as young women.
According to the Texas Council on Family Violence, 75 percent of young people ages 16 to 24 report personally experiencing some form of abuse in their dating relationships or knowing someone who has. Think about it, if you have four children, teen dating violence will personally touch three of them. As a mother of a son and a daughter, I find that statistic heartbreaking. We must do all we can to protect Texas children from this kind of abusive behavior.
That’s why I am pleased that our state continues to lead on the issue of teen dating prevention efforts. Just last year, Texas passed legislation that requires every school district in the state to create a dating violence policy. We are only the second state to require such a policy in the place children spend most of their time – in school. There is now a National Helpline for teen dating violence, managed in Texas by the Texas Council on Family Violence.
Thanks to the ongoing efforts by educators, lawmakers and the entire Texas Dating Violence and Prevention Team, Texas continues to make the necessary strides to end teen dating violence.
During this season, I urge you to go beyond the usual cards and flowers and show your love for your sister, son or friend by speaking honestly with them. If they are in a hurtful relationship, show your concern and support by listening, encouraging them to get out of the abusive situation and seek help. Together we can move one step closer to the end of dating violence and make a safer Texas for our youth.