Kent State Student Escapes Dating Abuse, Helps Others Know Their Worth
“I constantly felt like I was walking on eggshells.”
At the age of 16, Rhylee Shepherd, found herself in an abusive relationship with a teenage boy who attended another high school.
He called her terrible names and told her that no one would ever love her. He tried to separate Shepherd from her family by convincing her that they were trying to control her. And he restricted her phone use unless Shepherd was talking to him.
Once he even held her hostage in his truck for hours and told her how much she had ruined his life. Shepherd was afraid to leave him.
“The abuse was emotional and mental for the most part, but it was physically abusive in some ways,” said Shepherd, who is from Newcomerstown, Ohio, and is entering her second year at Kent State Tuscarawas. “He didn't leave bruises. He didn't punch me or anything. But if I did something that upset him or that he didn’t like, he would dig his fingernails into my hands and wrists or stomp on my feet to get me to stop doing what he didn’t like.”
It wasn’t easy, but with the help of her family and the pandemic, Shepherd was able to get away from the abusive teen.
Turning Red Flags Into Help For Others
As a high school senior, Shepherd turned her pain into Know Your Worth, a program to help teens enduring dating violence. Now, as a college student, Shepherd continues to use the program to help others identify the red flags of teen dating violence.
Shepherd was surprised to learn that her boyfriend checking her phone and social media posts were signs of abuse and ways to control her. His moodiness was another red flag. The name calling and the putdowns and isolation are other telltale signs.
“My message is, you know your worth,” Shepherd said. “You are worth so much more than what anyone tells you that you are. Don’t let anyone take that away from you or let you think that you are worth less than you are.”
After she broke away from the abuser and created Know Your Worth as part of her senior project, she spoke before her church’s youth group and was surprised at the response. “There were a lot of girls who came up to me afterwards telling me that they went through the same thing.”
Teen and College Dating Violence is Prevalent
Experts estimate that women aged 16-24 experience domestic violence at the highest rate of any age group, at nearly three times the national average. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV):
43% of dating college women reported experiencing violent or abusive behaviors from their partner.
More than 13% of college women report they have been stalked, and of those cases, 42% were stalked by a boyfriend or ex-boyfriend.
Nearly one in five females and one in seven males in high school report being physically or sexually abused by a dating partner.
Almost 1.5 million high school students in the United States are physically abused by dating partners every year.
Escaping the Abuse
At first Shepherd kept the abuse a secret from her parents. But once the pandemic hit in 2020, and the family began to spend more time together at home, her family noticed she was different. They could see signs of the abuse, Shepherd said.
“They could see that I was much more quiet and not as happy,” she said. “My parents sat me down and talked to me. They could see exactly what was going on. And they told me to take a break and rethink the relationship. They encouraged me to contact friends who I had lost contact with. I was able to see what was going on with their help.”
The relationship finally ended on Easter 2020 when Shepherd was planning to spend time with her boyfriend’s family. She put on makeup and did her hair, but he insulted her appearance. Shepherd had gotten stronger during the time she was away from him and with her family. She had the confidence to stand up to him, and fortunately, once he saw that, he left and never came back.
"He asked me why I was being so mean to him. I told him I’m not being mean; I’m standing up to you. I had a box of his stuff already prepared because I had been planning this for a while. I handed him the box and told him we were done.”
Shepherd turned her experience into a teaching opportunity for her peers through Know Your Worth. She had planned to tell her story at a high school assembly, but because of COVID-19 she gave her testimony via video, which was played in each classroom, and she placed posters throughout the school.
In 2021, Shepherd was awarded a $4,000 Larry F. Ball Memorial Scholarship for her “courage and determination” in starting the Know Your Worth campaign. Shepherd also sold Know Your Worth bracelets with the proceeds benefiting OhioGuidestone’s Harbor House Domestic Violence Shelter.
That same year, Shepherd was crowned Cy Young Festival Queen in Newcomerstown, giving her the opportunity to talk to more groups about dating violence, among other topics. As Shepherd’s reign as queen was ending in June 2022, she held a final luncheon for other festival queens where she continued to spread the word about teen dating abuse. She let the teens know they do not have to stay in abusive relationships, and she continued to spread the message – know your worth.
If you are experiencing dating violence on Kent State’s campuses, reach out to the Center for Sexual and Relationship Violence Support Services or call 330-672-8016.
For more information about healthy and unhealthy teen relationships go to https://www.loveisrespect.org/.