The gunman accused of killing 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida shares a common trait with about 1 in 5 mass shooters: He had a history of domestic violence.
U.S. mass shootings have continued to spark debate on guns, mental health and other issues, but some Dayton experts say domestic violence also needs to be part of that conversation. And with abuse often starting early, advocates stress the need to talk to teenagers about their relationships and how to recognize signs of abuse.
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About 20 percent mass public shootings were precipitated by a domestic dispute of some type, according to a 2013 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. FBI statistics also show that in more than half of the shootings involving four or more victims between 2009 to 2014, an intimate partner or at least one family member of the gunman was numbered among those shot.
“You’ll find very frequently these types of individuals have domestic violence in their background, and they even might have these domestic violence convictions in their background,” said Sarah Wolf-Knight, advocacy coordinator at YWCA Dayton.
The ex-girlfriend of Nikolas Cruz, the accused shooter at the Parkland, Fla., high school, said he had been abusive toward her and was expelled after fighting with her new boyfriend.
The ex-girlfriend of the 17-year-old who killed one student and injured another in Mary’s County, Md., last month had recently ended her relationship with him.
And in November, the gunman who killed 26 people and wounded about 20 others in a rural Texas church had previously accepted a plea deal after being charged with beating his wife and infant stepson. Law enforcement told news outlets at the time that a “domestic situation” may have been a precursor to the violence.
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After the Stoneman Douglas shooting, the National Domestic Violence Hotline posted online that every time a mass shooting occurs, the organization’s advocates hear from survivors of abuse who are concerned that their boyfriends or husbands are capable of such large-scale violence.
“As the story unfolded in the coming days, it wasn’t shocking to us that the man who killed 17 people in Parkland, Florida, was allegedly abusive to his past girlfriend,” the nonprofit stated. “No other marker is as widely shared among men who carry out these kinds of atrocities as a history of violence towards their intimate partners.”
Local dating violence experts say abusive relationships don’t typically start out violent.
One early red flag, they say, is possessiveness and controlling behaviors, like tracking a dating partner on social media, showing up without an invitation, or insisting on always driving and picking their partner up from work or school.
Excessive gift giving can also be tied with abusive behavior.
“Especially with younger folks, because this can create a sense of ‘I’ve presented you with this, and now I’m entitled to that,’” said Caitlin Bentley, YWCA Dayton sexual assault program manager.
Almost 12 percent of high school girls reported physical violence and nearly 16 percent reported sexual violence from a dating partner in the previous 12 months, according to the 2015 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey. And 43 percent of college women — more than four in 10 — report experiencing violent and abusive dating behaviors, according to the survey.
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Once excessive attention escalates to violence, an apology and “honeymoon” period may follow, and sometimes a shared “trauma bond” develops between the victim and the perpetrator, said Mandi Chalmers, YWCA Dayton crisis support specialist. But then the cycle often begins anew, she warned.
“Normally they don’t start out acting any type of negative way, or they would never get as far as they get,” Chalmers said. “They’re charming and whatever and it happens gradually until it stops being cute and sweet and ‘he just loves me so much’ and it’s turns into something scary. And then they just aren’t sure how to get out.”
About 7 percent of boys and 13 percent of girls reported being victims of physical violence in dating relationships within the past year, according to Dr. Gregory Ramey, pediatric psychologist at Dayton Children’s Hospital. About 6 percent of boys and 14 percent of girls reported being the victims of sexual violence in dating relationships within the past year, including any unwanted kissing, touching or sexual intercourse.
Ramey said he often meets with teenagers who feel like they can change someone who is abusing them; he tells them that the abusive behavior typically doesn’t stop, and often escalates.
Children raised in an abusive home are more likely to become abusive in their own dating relationships, Ramey said.
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Parents shouldn’t be surprised if their child denies they are in an abusive relationship, Ramey said, but he advises parents to keep communication channels open, and don’t shy away from discussing what is often a taboo topic.
“The most important thing parents can do is when you see something on TV, turn around to your kid and ask them, ‘Do you know of kid that this has happened to?’” he said.
Abuse warning signs
Some common early warning signs of abuse include when your partner:
• Wants to move too quickly into the relationship and doesn’t listen to your boundaries
• Is excessively jealous, accuses you of having affairs, or constantly checks in where you are with calls, emails and texts
• Cuts you off from family or friends or insists you stop spending time at other activities you have been involved in.
• Takes no responsibility for their behavior and blames others; blames the entire failure of previous relationships on their partner
• Has a history of violent behavior; rages out of control and is impulsive
To talk with someone any time for crisis assistance, confidential support and other information
• YWCA 24-hour hotline 937-222-7233
• National Domestic Violence hotline 1-800-799-7233
• National Sexual Assault hotline 1-800-656-4673
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