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Program teaches teens about ‘safe dates’

By Kathy Jefcoats

kjefcoats@news-daily.com

JONESBORO — It is the ultimate in teen dating violence.

Angel Hope Freeman had her whole life ahead of her at 16 when she was shot once in the chest by her high school boyfriend, Kevin Kosturi. Freeman died in the woods outside a makeshift shack in Ellenwood. Her long hair was pulled up in a ponytail. She was wearing a white tank top and blue jeans tucked inside brown boots.

When her body arrived at the Crime Lab for an autopsy, she was still wearing several pieces of jewelry, like teenage girls do. She never got to graduate high school, get married or have children.

Witnesses testified that Freeman and Kosturi argued frequently. Several said they heard him repeatedly threaten to kill her. Police said he borrowed a handgun from a neighbor and shot Freeman to death. Kosturi, nearly 18, was convicted Friday and faces life in prison for her murder.

It didn’t have to happen, if anyone close to the teenagers had spotted the red flags in their troubled relationship, said Christie Wooten, program services coordinator at Southern Crescent Sexual Assault Center in Jonesboro.

“We call it ‘bystander intervention,’” said Wooten. “It’s hard to make a decision and it’s different for every situation. If you say something, you can become a social outcast. It’s hard to feel responsible but if you see something, you should talk to that person, whether it’s the aggressor or the person being victimized.”

Wooten doesn’t just spout off advice, she heads up a six-week program called Safe Dates, which teaches teenagers 12-18 about being in a healthy relationship and knowing how to avoid dating violence. The program is funded through the Governor’s Office of Children and Families and is offered through a collaboration with Hearts to Nourish Hope.

Wooten said one in three girls will become a victim of some sort of abuse by a romantic partner or relative by 18.

“Teen dating violence is not going away,” said Wooten. “We’re trying to bring more awareness to the issue through the Safe Dates program.”

February was Teen Dating Awareness Month and April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The Southern Crescent Sexual Assault Center provides educational information to young men and women on both issues.

Safe Dates focuses on topics including teen dating violence, sexual references in the media and how it affects teenagers, communication styles, coping mechanisms and exactly what constitutes a healthy relationship.

“We don’t just lecture but include games, role playing, scenarios and open questions and answers,” said Wooten. “There are several factors that go into teen violence including hormones, the fact that the frontal lobe of the brain isn’t fully developed yet, impulse control, decision-making skills and puberty.”

It’s also important to the teenagers to know they aren’t alone in their experiences.

“They learn that things happen to everyone,” she said. “And they can learn from how others coped with their situations.”

In teen dating violence, there are always red flags.

“At some point, if you are hearing someone say they are going to kill the person they are dating, that’s a red flag in itself,” said Wooten.

Parents don’t always see that side of their children.

“Kids are with their peers more than their family,” she said. “The peer relationship is very important, that feeling of self-worth and autonomy, they are becoming themselves.”

Teenagers in homes where there is domestic violence have a greater chance of becoming victims or aggressors, said Wooten.

“That’s a big predictor of teen dating violence,” she said. “We want to break the cycle. And it’s not just boys doing the abusing, it’s just that boys are more physical where girls are emotional.”

For more information on Southern Crescent Sexual Assault Center, access the website at scsac.org.