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As prom season approaches in CT, dating violence prevention takes center stage

Sofia Veronesi, 18, a victim of sexual assault, is interviewed on March 23, 2023, at Connecticut Public Headquarters in Hartford.
Julianne Varacchi
Connecticut Public
Sofia Veronesi, 18, a victim of sexual assault, is interviewed on March 23, 2023, at Connecticut Public headquarters in Hartford.

A note to readers: This story includes descriptions of sexual assault.

Masuk High School in Monroe is getting ready for prom later this month, and students are excited.

“I will be wearing a very pretty pink dress that is one shoulder and of course has lots of sparkles,” said Madison Julian, a senior.

She’s one of many student leaders aware of the need to address dating violence. Almost 1 in 10 high school students across the country said they were forced to have sex, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And women, American Indian and Alaska Native students were more likely to report being coerced.

In Connecticut, nonprofits say more teens are reporting dating abuse. In response, students like Julian are organizing preventive education events leading up to prom.

“Respect Week is going to be a way to raise awareness about healthy relationships and dating abuse during prom,” Julian said. “And we’re also going to create messages and promote healthy dating ideas.”

Julian said students will discuss boundaries on social media — teens have been posting cellphone numbers, email addresses or simply tagging an ex on TikTok.

“That could lead to not only cyberbullying, but also it could lead to, like, the person who is hurt — their friends bullying the significant other,” Julian said.

Last year, nonprofit members of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence helped 41 teen victims of dating violence and provided prevention education to more than 20,000 middle and high school students.

“We know it’s about 1 in 3 high school students will experience some form of dating violence, whether physical abuse, sexual abuse, stalking or other abusive behaviors,” said Amanda Posila, director of education and community engagement at the Center for Family Justice in Bridgeport. Monroe is one of the many school districts where her nonprofit is educating teens on safe dating.

Posila said more kids are starting to date at a younger age — 12, 11, and even 10 years old.

Sofia Veronesi, 18, met her boyfriend in high school a couple of years ago in Bristol, and in the beginning, all was fun.

She pulled up a photo of them together when they went skiing, saying that he just looked so “normal.”

But as their relationship continued, she said he would pick her up and they would hang out a lot in his basement room.

“So the only way he would bring me home was ‘you have to have sex with me, or you’re not leaving,’” she said. “And it wasn’t like I could have walked out of the house, I could have called somebody. He would take my phone. At one point he strangled me and choked me unless I agreed to have sex.”

Connecticut Public does not typically disclose the names of sexual assault victims. But Veronesi wanted to be identified. She said even though it’s not easy to relive her trauma, she wants others to know that family and friends must step up — what may look normal can be far from it.

The CDC’s latest data shows that 9% of adolescents reported they didn’t get to school in the last month because of safety concerns. Veronesi’s experience is reflected in this statistic. She said her boyfriend wanted her to drop out of track and switch to online schooling, which she did.

“If I went back to school, I felt like something bad really would have happened,” she said.

Veronesi is in therapy now. It will take a while, she said, before she can trust people again.

But things are looking up. She pulled up her phone to show a photo of her best friend in high school. “This is us again, like last week, just hanging out, doing normal things,” she said.

They did track together, and the two of them took a tour of the University of New Haven, where Veronesi hopes to study criminal justice. She’s in community college now.

In Monroe, Julian is getting ready for prom. And that includes black high heels, and “in my bag, I will always have my first-aid kit as well as my CPR mask.”

She’ll be going to Providence College next year for pre-med.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, free and confidential resources are available 24/7 by calling or texting the CT Safe Connect hotline at 888-774-2900 or the National Domestic Violence hotline at 800-799-7233.

Sujata Srinivasan is Connecticut Public Radio’s senior health reporter. Prior to that, she was a senior producer for Where We Live, a newsroom editor, and from 2010-2014, a business reporter for the station.