Violence in teen dating gets focus in Aspen | AspenTimes.com
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Violence in teen dating gets focus in Aspen

ASPEN – Jesse Wagner’s life was forever changed on Jan. 10, 2010.

On that day, when Jesse was just a freshman at Aspen High School, she was beaten by her then-boyfriend on school grounds.

It began as a verbal argument. Her boyfriend, also a student at the high school, was mad that she had texted another boy. He deleted all the male contacts from her phone. He cornered her in a stairwell, yelling at her and blocking her from going to class.

“Finally, he let me go,” recalled Jesse, who is now a 16-year-old junior at Aspen High. “But I was pretty shaken up and really scared.”

Later, he found her in the lunchroom. He told her he wanted to talk. She knew she didn’t want to be alone with him and figured the science wing of the school was a safe place to go.

What happened next is something Jesse could not have imagined.

“He just grabbed my jacket and started dragging me by it. He dragged me outside. I thought, ‘Outside is still a public place. … I’ll be OK,'” she said.

There was nothing OK about what happened next.

Jesse’s boyfriend pinned her in a corner, out of sight. He shoved her against the wall, slamming her forehead into the bricks. The more she cried, the angrier he became. When Jesse curled up on the ground, bawling, he punched her in the stomach.

Eventually her friends – worried because Jesse had told them about the earlier confrontation – found her. And though Jesse’s boyfriend yelled at them to go away, threatening them, as well, one friend was able to grab Jesse and take her to safety.

“That’s when the court process was started. We got a restraining order that day, and he was charged with assault,” she said, fighting back tears. “It was pretty intense.”

Ultimately, the boy was sentenced to a year in juvenile detention. He is now back in the Roaring Fork Valley but has not tried to contact Jesse.

Jesse’s story is shocking, to be sure. But it is not an isolated incident. According to Response, a local organization that deals with victims of domestic violence, teen dating violence is not uncommon. It can be emotional abuse or physical abuse, and it can happen to anyone.

“This is the perfect example that this does happen,” said Jill Gruenberg, court advocate for Response. “This boy used all the tactics. It is a classic example of an abusive relationship, which so often people don’t recognize until it’s too late.”

Jesse agrees, and that’s why she’s decided to share her story. Last week, Jesse was part of a panel discussion on teen dating violence. She also speaks to school classes on the topic.

“I know it’s hard to understand, but it happened so slowly that I didn’t really realize what was going on,” she said. “So I want other kids to know the signs.”

According to Jesse, her relationship with the boy started out normal.

“He was a nice guy. We started hanging out a lot. He was two years older than me, so I looked up to him,” she remembered.

But as the relationship progressed, he “always wanted to be with me.” Jesse started losing friends, her grades began to drop, and she became distant from her parents.

“When I didn’t have time to be with him, he’d say, ‘You don’t love me.’ He would make me feel really bad, and sometimes he would push me around, but I would just think, ‘He’s doing this because he loves me. … He just wants to be with me,'” she said.

When she stood her ground and tried to back off a bit, he would threaten to kill himself.

“It got pretty bad. He really manipulated me. But you don’t realize it until you’re out of it,” she said.

Jesse’s mother, Kate Foster, also didn’t realize what was going on. Now she, too, is speaking out.

“I adored that boy. He became part of our family. As a parent, you’re so happy that your son or daughter has found that relationship,” she said. “And you think, ‘Something like abuse is never going to happen to my child,’ or ‘I’ll know it if it’s happening.’

“Well, I’m here to tell you that you can be one of the most vigilant parents ever, and your kids are still going to pull one over on you. But there is no shame in finding out this happened right under our noses.”

In fact, Foster and Gruenberg said abuse such as this unfolds so slowly that it’s often hard to recognize. And once it’s clear something is amiss, it can be hard to break the cycle because the victim has true, deep feelings for the abuser.

“You can’t just flip feelings off like a switch,” Gruenberg said. “And in Jesse’s situation, she and her mom were caretakers for this boy. They wanted to help him even after the assault.”

Jesse sees Gruenberg’s point and is using it to fuel her mission of helping others.

“There were great things about our relationship. I really loved him. It’s hard to go from loving and caring about someone to just not caring,” Jesse agreed. “But with a lot of help from a lot of people, I was able to move forward.

“I am trying to take this bad experience and do something positive with it. I want to help other kids who might find themselves in this type of situation.”

jmcgovern@aspentimes.com


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