The following is part of a multi-week series on domestic violence in South Carolina.

HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) – About 8% of South Carolina high school students will be physically hurt by a romantic partner within the last year, according to results from a youth risk behavior survey. 

Of those who are 15 and younger, 9.1% said they experienced physical dating violence, and 11.1% of high school seniors had been sexually assaulted by a romantic partner within the last 12 months. 

And as they enter adulthood, the statistics only get worse. About 42.3% of South Carolina women and 29.2% of men will be physically or sexually abused, or stalked, by a romantic partner within their lifetimes, accounting for about 32,563 cases of intimate partner violence in the state each year, according to the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (SCCADVASA). 

Those statistics are why advocates say laws need to be changed to include dating relationships under state domestic violence definitions – and why schools are key to prevention.

Recognizing violence

Natalia Holmes was getting out of a car to go to school when her boyfriend, Edwin Cornelius, stabbed her more than 15 times in the drop-off of Carolina Forest High School.

Holmes, who was 18 when she was murdered in May 2006, had moved from California a year before. She was raised by her aunt, moving between friends and different men’s homes. 

Despite not having a job, Holmes wore designer clothes and lived in a hotel that was known for prostitution. She met Cornelius on a dating site and started seeing him after he claimed to be a real estate broker. 

“Friends clearly noticed [Natalia’s] odd living arrangement, nice clothes and relationship with an older man,” according to the most recent annual report from the state’s domestic violence committee, which used her death as a case study.

Instead, he was unemployed, possessive, and said he would not let “anyone else have her,” according to the report.

Cornelius had been charged with involuntary manslaughter in 2003 in connection to the death of his mother’s boyfriend. He was later sentenced to life in prison for Holmes’s murder.

The committee’s report recommends an increased focus on educating students about healthy relationships, advocates for training teachers to recognize warning signs and urges the creation of a see something, say something text line.

Youth often interpret the early signs of domestic violence to normal behavior at the start of a relationship, according to Briyana McNeil, a behavioral health counselor  in Florence County School District 2. 

“One of the biggest things that we’ve seen is the communication with the telephones, and having to be on the phone all night with this person, constant communication with this person, and when you don’t, it’s an issue,” she said. 

The district partners with the Pee Dee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Assault for the Reducing Our Assault Risk, or ROAR program, about dating violence. 

Under the South Carolina Standards for Health and Safety Education, students learn about domestic violence starting in the sixth grade. 

The lessons start with explaining what type of situations classify as dating violence, how to access resources and how to talk to an adult about the topic. They’ll learn about what steps to take if they are abused, how to manage anger and conflict in healthy ways and what the impacts of violence are. 

In high school, those standards expand to teach about local resources and how to help someone they know who is in a dangerous relationship.

Kim Parsons, the executive director of The Family Justice Center, was doing a presentation about healthy relationships at Myrtle Beach High School when she watched students realize they might be being abused.

“You could see the kids in there, on their faces and the questions they asked, they were experiencing something either personally with themselves, or maybe it was a parent or somebody in the family who was involved in a situation,” she said. “So teen dating violence is something we need to be focusing on and helping these men and women, or girls and boys, is helping them to learn that those are unhealthy behaviors, and these are some things you can do to reach out, because it isn’t always adults who are being victims of domestic violence and having homicide at the end of the day.”

McNeil said students are more likely to reveal their abuse to their friends, rather than to an adult at school. 

When they do, they usually don’t disclose where they’re seeing violence.

“That is something that our students are very hesitant to share with us,” said Cristy Altman, a school psychologist in Florence County School District 2. “We deal with that very rarely in counseling sessions.”

State statistics show that far more teens are being abused than are revealing it to an adult. Altman said schools want to approach the topic as soon as possible, while also making sure youth are mature enough for the conversations. 

Abuse spills over into classrooms, making it almost impossible to learn. 

Once students learn the signs, they’re more likely to talk about it, something staff are braced for.

“I wouldn’t say it’s surprising to me as a mental health counselor, because I have seen things before,” McNeil said. “So, not surprising to me in a sense, but it is amazing to see how many come forward once you educate them, or they are educated on what it looks like, or what it is.”

Altman said parents should keep an eye out for big mood changes, a lack of interest in things outside of a teen’s relationship or if they stop spending time with friends. Students today also can have entire virtual lives.

“I wish that parents were more aware of their children’s online lives,” Altman said, noting that it’s tricky to tow the line between being aware, and being invasive. 

The biggest sign a teen is in an abusive relationship, she said, is if they’re afraid.

“Fear is a huge red flag,” Altman said. 

Including teenagers

SCCADVASA wants teachers to be trained to know what supports to direct students to if a teenager discloses that they’re in an abusive relationship, according to Sara Barber, the organization’s executive director. She said schools need to do a better job in teaching about prevention and how to have a healthy relationship.

Another way to help, she said, would be to include dating relationships under domestic violence laws. The Protections from Domestic Abuse Act currently is written to include “household members,” defined as a spouse, a former spouse, people who have a child in common, and “a male and female who are cohabitating or formerly have cohabitation.”

That law influences who is able to apply for an order of protection, who qualifies for domestic violence services and when charges can be upgraded from assault to domestic assault. 

“I think that is something we are missing,” Barber said. “It needs to be dating violence, across the board.”

Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Richland County, has proposed a bill that would amend the law to include people who are, or were, in a dating relationship. 

Bernstein sponsored the bill after hearing teens testify during public hearings about being abused. 

“It would provide more protections, and access to those protections,” Bernstein said. 

While most bills never make it out of a legislative committee, she’s optimistic this one will.

South Carolina has consistently ranked as one of the worst states in the nation for its domestic violence rate, and for the rate of how often women are killed by men. Expanding the definitions, she said, would help youth who are being abused in relationships that previously didn’t qualify.

“They are all important, and even if it’s something that results in death or not, a relationship in its formative years really can create a lot of trauma for teenagers, and so I think it is important that we protect our young adults,” she said. 

Domestic Violence Resources
If you or someone you know are experiencing domestic violence, the following resources are available.
Family Justice Center
Crisis line: 844-208-0161
Pee Dee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Assault
Crisis line: 800-273-1820