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Deaths of two teens in Blacksburg leads to conversations about dating violence

Friends and family placed flowers and other objects around a statue to remember Serenity Hawley, who died a few days before her 18th birthday in a parking garage in Blacksburg.
Roxy Todd
Radio IQ
Friends and family placed flowers and other objects around a statue to remember Serenity Hawley, who died a few days before her 18th birthday in a parking garage in Blacksburg. Photo taken Nov. 10, 2023.

One in three teenagers will be in an abusive dating relationship before they graduate high school, according to the American Psychological Association. A tragic event in Blacksburg last year is leading school administrators, parents and other community members to ask, what are the early warning signs that a teen may be in danger? How, and when, should adults step in to help?

Last November, two teenagers in Blacksburg were found dead: a 17-year-old girl, and her ex-boyfriend. Police aren’t releasing many details around the deaths, because both teenagers were minors. Heather Waldron, whose daughter, Serenity, was one of those who died, said her daughter was killed in a murder suicide, and was the victim of dating violence perpetrated by her ex-boyfriend.

“I hope that Serenity’s death will initiate conversations that we can have in our community,” Waldron said. “We do not need to have such a stigma with domestic violence or mentally abusive, physically abusive relationships, that our children are going through. And we can see that it can happen to anywhere, to anyone, at any time.”

Some community members are asking if school administrators could have done more to prevent these deaths.

“If the protocols that are in place to help and protect students, if they were followed,” said Wendy Eckenrod-Green, the parent of a Blacksburg High School student. She started a petition asking for a third party investigation of the circumstances related to the deaths. More than 1,300 people signed it.

Last month, the Montgomery County School board voted to move forward with the review.

Eckenrod-Green said she would like to see Blacksburg High School staff more clearly tell students and parents what to do if they suspect someone is in an abusive relationship.

“Being able to report a concern isn’t really well laid out,” Eckenrod-Green said.

She said she hopes the review will show if the school has clear policies for assessing threats, and if those policies were followed in this case.

Montgomery County School superintendent Bernie Bragen would not comment on the details around this specific case, but he said in general, they take any reported threat seriously, and the division has policies for how to include law enforcement, parents, and mental health experts in cases where it’s deemed necessary.

He added that he wants to see more training for staff and students around dating violence.

“And how do you identify when someone is acting inappropriately, not just with you, but with your friends?” Bragen said. “And for us as a division, I would like us to provide the training for students and staff to understand and identify that.”

Recently, Bragen organized a presentation for 28 principals from across Montgomery County, led by Meagan Brem, assistant professor of psychology at Virginia Tech.

“Dating violence peaks between the ages of 13 and 25,” Brem told principals. She explained that this is partly because teenagers’ brains are still developing, particularly the prefrontal cortex, which helps with decision making and managing impulses, and risky behavior. Also, they’re experiencing their first romantic relationships, and breakups are common, emotions are high.

“So they don’t actually have the skills necessary to manage conflict, from both a cognitive perspective but also just a life experience perspective.

Brem said early warning signs a teen may be in an abusive situation include changing how they dress, or pulling away from hobbies or friends.

One strategy she suggests for parents is, while watching TV or movies with your child, keep an eye out for unhealthy relationship behavior.

Parents can comment on what they see, or ask a question, like “that doesn’t seem safe to me. What do you think?” Brem suggested. “And that kind of creates a dialogue where you’re not necessarily talking with your teen about their relationships and behaviors.”

She said adults can also talk about what healthy relationships look like. Instead of demanding to spend all their time together, loving partners allow each other freedom, Brem explained. “In reality it is actually more normative and healthy for each individual to have their own identity, their own hobbies, their time spent apart. That’s what we know about relationship health.”

She said if a teen does tell an adult they’re concerned, grownups should listen. These moments are rare; Brem said only 13 percent of teens experiencing dating violence will ever tell an adult. More often, they’ll tell a friend.

As a parent who lost her daughter, Heather Waldron said she hopes more young people can feel safe about telling a parent if they need help.

“Speak up. Tell someone. Don’t be afraid because we’re not gonna look down on you,” Waldron said. “We’re not going to think bad of you. This is not your fault. This is something that you can get help with.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing dating or domestic violence, you can call the National Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

More resources:

Love is Respect.org

Women’s Resource Center of the New River Valley

Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Updated: February 5, 2024 at 4:45 PM EST
Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.