He sent me instant message after instant message.” Sarah printed and kept some of the dozens which were sent minutes apart: “i never wanted to scare u,” he wrote in one; another said, “i would never hurt you and i hope u dont honestly think I would.” A few days later Joe surprised Sarah while she was jogging, presenting another bouquet of roses. (PEOPLE’s multiple calls to Joe and his family were not returned.) Just before Valentine’s Day, 2005, Sarah met Joe at a party.By the time she arrived with a girlfriend, she says, Joe was drunk.Sarah Van Zanten, 15, was lying on the floor, an ice pack on her aching ribs.For a moment, she had no idea where she was; then her boyfriend’s face came into focus.He told me he was going to beat the s— out of me.” Terrified and sobbing, Sarah escaped into a classroom and sought help from a teacher.Joe got a two-day suspension from school, the school confirms, for drinking.“It became kind of a joke—that she was too busy with school and crew.” Sarah kept her doubts to herself. “I think it has to do with being in one of the first relationships of your life. It made me feel loved.” But her parents, Kate and Mark, a computer software salesman, were worried.
“They would say things like, ‘I know you are at practice right now, but I just wanted to be the first one to say hi,'” Sarah says.
“I never would have thought,” Sarah says now, “something like this would happen to me.” Once a hidden problem, teen dating violence is getting some serious attention.
A 2005 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that of 6,888 high school girls surveyed nationally, 1 in 11 had been hit, slapped or punched by an intimate partner.
Something she said—to this day she doesn’t know what—enraged him.
“He snapped,” Sarah says, still wincing at the memory.