Texas Teens Are Experiencing Dating Violence at Alarming Rates. This Group Is Helping Them Seek Justice.

(Justine Goode/NBC News)

Editor’s note: This story contains mentions of violence and suicide. 

In the eighth grade, Hailey Solis would style her hair to hide the bruises on her face and wear jackets in warm weather to cover the marks on her body. A classmate she was dating was harassing, stalking and physically abusing her, she said, and she was scared to tell her family about it. 

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It wasn’t until her friends noticed the marks and odd wardrobe choices that they decided to tell a school resource officer their worst fear: that their friend was being abused by someone who said he loved her. 

At the time, Solis said she was furious at her friends and was fearful her abuser would retaliate. Even though school administrators and authorities got involved and her abuser was suspended, he returned to school weeks later. It threw her into a cycle of depression and suicidal thoughts. She decided to go to her school counselor and find out how to get protection. 

Hailey Solis (Hailey Solis)

“When I saw him at school, I was panicked and in pure shock,” Solis said. “I didn’t think I could handle it. I didn’t think I was strong enough.” 

Seeking safety and justice, she was put in touch with the Texas Advocacy Project, which offered her free legal services and worked with authorities to get her abuser removed from school and away from her. They also assured her that the abuse wasn’t her fault and provided her with emotional support throughout the entire process. 

The organization’s help came just in time. The day her abuser was arrested, he was found with a handgun on him and a note in his backpack saying he was going to kill her after school, according to the organization’s records. (The San Marcos Police Department said since the abuser was a juvenile at the time, their records couldn’t be released.)

“Hearing other people say I didn’t deserve that and that they were sorry it happened to me helped a lot,” Solis said. “I’m glad that I made it out.” 

The Texas Advocacy Project has made it its mission to ensure what Solis went through stops becoming a common occurrence. More than 75% of 16- to 24-year-old Texans experience teen dating violence or know someone who has — more than three times higher than the national average of 19%. According to the Texas Council on Family Violence, 19 people under 21 were killed in domestic violence incidents in Texas in 2022.

The Texas Advocacy Project started as a hotline in 1982 with a team of young lawyers providing free counsel for survivors of relationship abuse. It has since grown into a comprehensive support system for survivors with no-charge legal and social services as well as educational programs for teen advocates. In 2023, the organization provided free legal services to 4,989 survivors of abuse and served over 11,000 clients and children across Texas.

“The work is inspiring, motivating and hopeful,” said Heather Bellino, the project’s chief executive. “It’s also sad and scary and a lot to carry, but I know that the people that come to Texas Advocacy Project, they’re ready to get out and all they need is for them to have advocates and voices so that they can be heard and believed.”

Empowering teens through leadership training and advocacy 

Texas Advocacy Project’s “Teen Ambassadors of Hope,” 2023 (Texas Advocacy Project)

The Texas Advocacy Project believes dating violence awareness must begin at a young age so cycles aren’t repeated later in life. Studies reveal violence in teen relationships predicts violence later in adulthood, and they want to ensure teens learn the warning signs now.

One of their education initiatives is the “Teen Ambassadors of Hope” program, where teens learn to look for the following when identifying abuse: yelling, threatening, name-calling, obsessive phone calling or texting, and extreme possessiveness. 

“We’ve ignited the voices of young people to say what is acceptable behavior and what is not,” Bellino said. “They will now say. ‘All of the relationships that I’m going to get in, I’m going to hold those accountable to this level of standard that says absolute respect and consent.’” 

Teens of all genders often learn about the program through word of mouth and ambassador-held events throughout the year. One teen from the most recent group introduced an abuse survivor to the organization, which then helped her get a court order for protection. 

The organization also offers leadership training, both virtual and in-person, where teens are given exercises like “In Their Shoes,” in which they are given different scenarios and must make decisions during pivotal moments in a victim’s story. Bellino said it’s important for teens to understand how specific actions have consequences. 

“Being able to recognize red flags and what it means to be in an unhealthy relationship, and then how to take action, has really been so important to me,” said Ingrid Smith, a senior at McCallum High School in Austin. “I can be there for my friends who are navigating the dating scene for the first time.” 

Taking a multi-pronged approach to helping
abuse survivors

While the Texas Advocacy Project aims to create a domino effect of young people taking action, the organization also makes sure to reach adult survivors. 

Teen ambassadors in training (Texas Advocacy Project)

Through the “Handbags for Hope” program, the organization also provides a lifeline for many survivors of domestic and dating abuse across Texas. Volunteers fill new purses, totes and diaper bags that have been donated with safety information and other resources and add a discreet tag listing their legal hotline. The organization says it has distributed more than 50,000 handbags to women at shelters, clinics and crisis centers across Texas since the program began 17 years ago. 

Prioritizing security, the organization also has an “escape button” feature on all of its webpages that survivors can click on, immediately taking them to Google, so that if their abuser comes in the room, the abuser can’t see what they are looking at. 

“The time that somebody goes to leave is the most lethal time,” Bellino said. “We try to put in as many fail-safes as possible to mitigate the lethality so that they have the opportunity to get to safety.” 

The Texas Advocacy Project is also pushing for tougher protective orders and more public funding to support the free resources they provide. 

“We can really change societal norms here,” Bellino said. “Abuse, power and control — that’s not love, support or kindness. It’s bad and it’s not acceptable. We will always stand up for the rights of victims and will always stand behind young people in their journey to make sure this doesn’t continue to happen.” 

Solis said speaking to teen ambassadors helped her to see the red flags that weren’t clear to her at the time — how her abuser isolated and manipulated her. She wants other people in a similar position to take the safest route out of the relationship and to know it’s OK to ask for help.

“I now know exactly how to help somebody that was in my situation, who might have been as blind as me at that time,” she said. “And I’m very thankful for that.” 

If you or someone you know is facing domestic or dating violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline for help at (800) 799-SAFE (7233), or go to www.thehotline.org for more. States often have domestic violence hotlines as well.