In late 2006, Phoenix, Ariz., high school student Kaitlyn Marie Sudberry, known to friends and family as Kaity, began dating a young man. For six months or so the relationship seemed healthy. But over time he became jealous and possessive, accusing her of lying and cheating. By December 2007 Kaity had enough, and she ended the relationship. A month later, he assaulted her at school and Kaity and her family got an injunction against harassment to help protect her.
It wasn’t enough. A few weeks later, while Kaity was walking home from school, her ex-boyfriend shot and killed her before turning the gun on himself and committing suicide. Kaity was just 17 years old.
“She was a victim of teen dating violence in the worst imaginable way,” says her mother, Bobbi Sudberry. After Kaity’s death, Bobbi and her husband, Ric, realized how little awareness there was surrounding teen dating violence. “Part of the reason things went so far south was that people thought, ‘it’s just a couple of kids, it’s not a big deal, it will blow over.’ We couldn’t get any help, and the situation escalated and went out of control,” Bobbi says.
Just a couple of weeks after Kaity was killed, Bobbi’s neighbor, a professor of women’s studies at Arizona State University, asked Bobbi if she would share Kaity’s story at a symposium on domestic violence. “Without hesitation I said ‘yes.’ That’s when I started looking into statistics,” she says.
Parents Are in the Dark
According to LoveIsRespect.org, 81 percent of parents either don’t think teen dating violence is an issue or don’t know if it’s an issue. It is. In the United States, 1.5 million high school students experience dating violence every year, and only 33 percent of them report the abuse. Those who say something typically talk to a friend.
Statistics like these pushed Bobbi and Ric to launch Kaity’s Way, a nonprofit organization that promotes safe, healthy teen dating relationships and raises community awareness of teen dating violence.
“Initially we were handing out information, but we got a lot of requests to present. We’ve seen our presentations grow exponentially,” Bobbi says. “In our first year we did maybe three. In 2016 we did 180.”
Kaity’s Way offers two different types of sessions:
School presentations, where they share Kaity’s story and educate teens on the early warning signs of dating violence and on how to get help. The presentations are designed to fit into a 45-minute high-school class period. “We leave materials behind for teachable moments,” Bobbi says.
Weekend workshops, which are two hours long. “We talk with people about how they can help themselves or someone else. We get the community to realize they all play a part—teen dating violence is a societal disease. It’s an epidemic, but once it’s acknowledged we have the power to put an end to it,” Bobbi says. The workshops spell out what an abusive relationship is, and what you can do about it whether you’re a victim, an abuser or a bystander.
Workshop attendees include the general public, juveniles in diversion programs and families in crisis. Hearing Kaity’s story can be a wake-up call for teens who are being abused, Bobbi points out.
“It’s highly encouraged for a parent or guardian to attend the workshop—that gets at least one parent and the juvenile on the same page,” Bobbi says. A lot of times, teens recognize the signs of abuse—but in their parents’ relationship. “They feel powerless,” she says.
Studies Show Early Education About Violence Makes a Difference
Educating teens who grow up in households with abuse can help break the cycle. “We’re helping these kids realize what healthy relationships are. If we can capture them at a younger age, they’re not as jaded or conditioned to think in a certain way,” Bobbi says. That’s important because teens who view violence in their family are 50 percent more likely to end up in an abusive relationship themselves. And these violent relationships in the teen years can put victims at higher risk for substance abuse, eating disorders, risky sexual behaviors and further domestic violence.
Intervention programs like Kaity’s Way can work. A study funded by the National Institute of Justice found that programs in 30 public schools in New York City cut teen dating violence by up to 50 percent.
So far, Kaity’s Way has reached more than 60,000 people across the United States and Canada. Next up is a web-based presentation so online and homeschool students can access the information. They’re also working on peer-to-peer programs where teens can work together to create groups and activities that promote healthy relationships.
Bobbi and Ric were also instrumental in passing Kaity’s Law, an Arizona law that provides protection to people in dating relationships. In 43 other states, similar laws are on the books. “It would be great to get something passed on the federal level to capture those remaining states,” Bobbi says.
“Any kind of abuse is not acceptable. We’ve seen a rise in orders of protection because of Kaity’s Law, and I feel very strongly that had Kaity’s Law been in effect [her ex-boyfriend] would have been arrested when he assaulted her in public,” Bobbi says.