In Hamilton County, 1 in 10 high school students says he or she has been hit, slapped or purposely physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend.
That survey finding and a new University of Tennessee at Chattanooga study show that teenage relationships can and do grow violent. And it appears that teachers, youth and parents don't know what to do about the problem.
After talking to students and teachers, UTC researchers found:
• Students are unlikely to tell someone if they are abused by their boyfriends or girlfriends. If they do speak up, they're more likely to talk to a friend, not a teacher, counselor or school resource officer.
• Students don't know what to do or who to tell if a friend is being hurt.
• Available programs on dating violence are ad hoc and vary widely. Students say they need interactive, "real" education on relationship abuse.
The subject has only recently found its way onto the agendas of public policymakers and scholars. And it hasn't received as much emphasis as other types of community and teen violence. So far, no specific efforts or programs have been implemented to combat the problem.
"I don't know why we think batterers don't emerge until they're 18 and victims don't emerge until they're 18," said Helen Eigenberg, professor and chairwoman of UTC's criminal justice department and lead researcher on the local study.
Eigenberg said it's important to start intervening with abusers and victims in middle and high school because, for many, problems continue and escalate into adulthood.
"This is stuff that shows up down the road," she said. "It's sometimes hard to invest in things now that will show up later."
The local study was commissioned by Catholic Health Initiatives, the parent company of Memorial Health Care System.
Memorial is applying for a grant from the national organization's Mission and Ministry Fund. It hopes to use the money to start local programs combating adolescent relationship abuse and possibly other types of community violence.
Eigenberg said her team's research focused on examining the how and why of teenage relationship abuse, not the exact rate at which it occurs.
But the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey gives a local picture of the issue. About 11 percent of Hamilton County high school students reported being physically hurt by intimate partners. The rate was about 9 percent nationally.
In their study, Eigenberg said researchers heard consistent themes, such as the need for more programs and education.
Teen abusers use the same tactics as adult abusers. And the reasons girls and women don't leave violent relationships are often the same whether they are in middle school or marriage.
It's hard enough for an adult to leave a relationship. But in middle or high school, when peer pressure is crushing and relationships are everything, Eigenberg said it can be even more complicated.
"For a teenage girl, that pressure is so cruel," she said.
But that pressure could also be used to help stop the problem.
Eigenberg said a boy might stop hurting his girlfriend if he's confronted by classmates who make it clear that it's unacceptable. And girls can help their abused friends by reiterating it's not OK to be treated that way.
"You have to tell kids how to be more helpful to each other," she said.
Teens and parents often shy away from conversations about sex and dating. But open dialogue is important in recognizing an out-of-control relationship, said Caroline Huffaker, a victim advocate and case manager at the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults crisis resource center.
That culture of secrecy might be changing, as more children report their abuse to parents or counselors.
"I think people are actually starting to call it what it is," Huffaker said.