It's a shocking statistic: Close to 25 percent of American teenagers have been hit, slapped or physically hurt on purpose by a boyfriend or girlfriend.
These abusive relationships can escalate. resulting in teen suicides and murder.
It's so serious that schools all over the country are rushing to start prevention programs. America Now's, Leeza Gibbons recently visited with some middle school students who are learning the warning signs of dating violence.
"It can start with hurtful words. Then pushing, shoving or hitting," says Leeza. "And sometimes, teen dating violence results in death, as it did for 17-year-old Cindi Santana."
In 2011, Cindi was stabbed by her 18-year-old ex-boyfriend during a lunch break at a Los Angeles-area high school.
Cindi's death was a nightmare scenario, literally.
"It's what we all dread and hope and pray will never happen," says Leeza. "It's really an unspeakable tragedy for everybody involved; for every child who saw what happened, who knew him or her, their lives are changed forever."
Deaths such as Cindi's have cast a spotlight on the violent relationship behavior that is affecting more and more young people. But unfortunately, adolescents may not realize they are in an abusive relationship.
Patti Giggans is executive director of Peace Over Violence, which helps teens and adults build healthy relationships.
"Teens think that the control that goes on in a relationship is normal," says Giggans. "That this is part and parcel of having a boyfriend or having a girlfriend, that you need to report in, you don't want the person to get jealous, you need to prove your love by giving all your attention. So when it starts to cross that line, they think it's normal."
Giggans says while both male and female teens can be victims of dating abuse, females tend to keep it a secret and suffer in silence.
"There is such a need and a pressure to have a boyfriend, so they're going to keep that boyfriend at all costs, even if they are being treated badly and even if they are being treated harmfully," she continues. "This is a problem that's kind of been in the shadows. There's shame, stigma, embarrassment. But it's happening all across the country to kids as young as 11 years old – middle school, including the schools in your neighborhood."
Obsessiveness in a relationship is something to really be aware of and to teach kids about so that they know what that looks like, because to them, it's a camouflage.
"They think that, 'Oh, he wants to spend all his time with me, he wants me to spend all my time with him' and that's not a healthy relationship," says Giggans.
Through role playing and discussion, the kids have learned to recognize the warning signs of abuse in a relationship. These include when a teen:
By far the most dangerous time for teens in a relationship is when there's a break up, especially when there has been violence.
A lot of parents are probably surprised to find out this is going on.
"One of the most important things is for parents to figure out a way to maintain an open relationship with their teenager,with their adolescent," says Giggans. "They've got to keep the lines of communication open. They have to withhold their judgment.The minute a parent says, 'Get out of this relationship, he's not good for you,' they're going to stay longer."
In addition to parents, teachers, counselors and administrators are also important resources for kids.
To focus more attention on the problem of relationship abuse, the Los Angeles board of education is putting in place a comprehensive anti-violence program at every one of its 200 high schools and middle schools.
By working together, parents, teachers and teens can help prevent a potentially explosive situation from escalating.
Copyright 2012 America Now. All rights reserved.
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