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Ruskin High School attack bares fear of teen dating violence

What you should know about the alleged assault at Ruskin High School

Josiah S. Wright and Jonay Wright were charged with attacking a male student at Ruskin High School on Wednesday.
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Josiah S. Wright and Jonay Wright were charged with attacking a male student at Ruskin High School on Wednesday.

The violence that exploded in Ruskin High School over a broken teen dating relationship is something all schools fear.

Nothing fires teenagers’ fear and anger more than anxieties over love, counselors say. Nothing is more personal.

“It’s silent most of the time,” Sharon Sevier with the Missouri School Counselor Association said. “That’s the danger in it.”

Nearly 1.5 million high school students nationwide are physically abused by a dating partner every year, according to LoveIsRespect.org. One in three adolescents suffers from physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner.

“It’s incredibly prevalent,” said Joe Gallant, a Project SAFE specialist at the Rose Brooks Center in Kansas City. “Way more prevalent than schools are able to recognize.”

The violence this week that landed a Ruskin father and daughter in the Jackson County jail and left an 18-year-old male student in critical condition capped what records and statements show had been a combative breakup for the two teens.

Josiah S. Wright, 38, and daughter Jonay Wright, 17, made their initial appearance in a Jackson County courthouse Thursday. The court entered not guilty pleas for both to charges that they severely beat 18-year-old Cullen Landis in the school’s student services center Tuesday.

They remained in custody, with bond remaining at $100,000 for Josiah Wright and $30,000 for Jonay Wright.

Schools constantly have to watch for the pernicious dangers of teen dating violence, counselors say.

“Too many (teenagers) think a bad relationship is better than no relationship at all,” Sevier said. “They won’t talk if a boyfriend is roughing them up or a girlfriend is abusing them. Then it gets into the cycle of domestic violence, and that’s the scary thing.”

All certified school personnel — including teachers, counselors and administrators — are required by law to call abuse hotlines when they see, hear or suspect violence or abuse.

The alleged attack in Ruskin stunned witnesses and school officials who said the meeting of the three people had been accidental. The father was properly admitted into the school with his daughter because she had been late and he was helping her get a class schedule.

The ex-boyfriend happened to be sitting nearby and court records show that witnesses say the father and daughter reacted violently after the ex-boyfriend sent a phone text to the girl.

Three months earlier, according to municipal records, the ex-boyfriend was cited for punching the girl while in the school.

Associations for school counselors and administrators offer several tips to protect students from each other who are in or leaving a volatile relationship.

Students can be moved into separate classes and directed into different hallways in passing periods. Or schools can alter the passing period schedule for a student, or have a staff member shadow a student.

“When it comes up, it is serious, but a lot of (students’ animosity) is under wraps,” Sevier said. “We can’t know what’s under the surface if kids won’t talk about it.”

Warning signs

To get students talking about it, trusted adults have to watch for warning signs, counselors say.

A student who had a group of friends may become isolated, potentially controlled by a dating partner.

A student may show — or be trying to hide — bruises or cuts.

Often a student’s behavior may change, and he or she may become withdrawn or lose confidence. Academic performance may suffer. Once-favorite school activities may be dropped. Substance abuse might rise.

Often a teacher or a parent who sees signs may not be able to talk to the teen comfortably. The adults should go in search of someone who can help, Gallant said.

Parents can try talking to someone at the school, or a pastor. Sometimes other teens can help. Teachers can talk among themselves to find that teacher or counselor who has the best relationship with a student.

“It’s about making sure the child has someone they can trust,” Gallant said.

Anyone with concerns can call the state hotlines. Missouri’s is 1-800-392-3738. Kansas’ is 1-800-922-5330.

Joe Robertson: 816-234-4789, @robertsonkcstar

Glenn E. Rice: 816-234-4341, @GRicekcstar

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