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March shooting of Perham student draws attention to issue of teen domestic abuse

The death of 16-year-old Tabby Belmonte in March sent waves of shock throughout the Perham community.

In a town known for outstanding academic and athletic accomplishments, the murder-suicide of one of its own students was difficult to believe.

But when it comes to domestic abuse, experts say there is no limit to where it can occur.

"When we are presenting to different groups, whether it be to high school or even middle school, we like to tell people that this isn't just something that happens somewhere else in the country," said Ashley Zach, a Someplace Safe sexual assault advocate who works with teens and young adults.

Advocates drive home the point that domestic violence isn't limited to traditional marriage situations, but can also apply to teen relationships.

"I think teens, when they think of domestic abuse, they think of two parents being physically aggressive with each other," Zach said.

That's a misconception she and others hope is broken.

"It's a small town issue and a local issue," Zach said. "We're just like any other place."

Belmonte was shot and killed by her 17-year-old boyfriend, also the father of her 5-month-old baby, in March at their home near Amor.

Belmonte's death came on the heels of Teen Dating Awareness Month - a time when advocates around the state stepped up efforts to spread information relating to warning signs and avenues for victims to seek help.

At a school assembly dedicated to the memory of Belmonte, Perham teacher Sandra Wieser-Matthews reminded students about the importance of raising awareness relating domestic violence. That's a stance she sticks to today.

Wieser-Matthews said it's important to open up dialogue in the community, not only about domestic abuse, but about any possible emotional state, such as depression, that could result in violence.

"All students and community members need to be educated," Wieser-Matthews said.

"I think society as a whole doesn't look at it," she added.

Wieser-Matthews feels depression is a topic shunned by both adults and students. Considering outward acts of violence stem from emotions, it's a topic she feels is worth exposing throughout schools and communities.

"If the adults don't talk about it, the students aren't," she said.

One of Zach's jobs is to educate students about possible warning signs that could lead to domestic violence.

"I try to explain to teens that there are major characteristics of unhealthy relationships," she said.

Some warning signs include extreme acts of jealousy, often justified by the partner's love. Insulting a partner in public to make them feel bad or inferior is another red flag, Zach said.

Manipulation by threatening to break up with someone if they don't get what they want is another sign, along with blowing disagreements out of proportion.

Zach said that in the world of technology, cell phones can be used by abusers as a way to maintain control.

"A lot of abusers use the cell phone as a way to keep tabs on their dating partner," Zach said, "sending 30 to 50 texts a day, keeping tabs - that's huge."

While part of Zach's job is bringing awareness to students, the other half includes assisting students who are seeking help for themselves or someone close to them.

When the gut feeling that something is wrong creeps into someone's head, Zach said they should tell someone about it. For teens, it can be a parent, a friend, a counselor, teacher or a professional advocate. The most important part is to talk about it, Zach said. Often times, teens don't reach out at first, waiting until the situation has grown out of hand.

Just like adults, teens may also be dealing with emotional ties to the abusive partner - something that may prevent them from reaching out.

"A lot of teens don't tell their parents because they still have that physical or emotional tie to the dating partner," Zach said.