HARRISON CITY — One in three teenagers experiences abuse in their relationships, according to Dr. Gary Cuccia, whose daughter was brutally murdered by an ex-boyfriend six years ago. Cuccia spoke about dating violence Jan. 12 as part of a new youth ministry lecture series at St. Barbara Parish.
Cuccia never thought dating violence would impact his family. Since his daughter Demi Brae’s death in August 2007, he has made it his mission to make students and parents aware of the warning signs of dating violence.
“I used to think that there weren’t any red flags, but now as I look back I can see that there were a ton of red flags, but I didn’t see them as red flags,” said Cuccia, who helped form the New Alexandria-based Demi Brae Cuccia Awareness Organization after his daughter’s death. “I want people to have their eyes opened but not the way it happened to my family.”
Demi Brae’s relationship with John Mullarkey started out like most, but soon he became controlling. He demanded that she quit cheerleading for Gateway High School, Monroeville, and alienated her from friends. Mullarkey was particularly possessive through text messages, sometimes texting her 30 times in an hour to determine where she was and what she was doing.
“It’s a new world,” Cuccia said. “When I was a kid we had the one telephone with the cord. If I had been yelling at a girlfriend, my parents would have known. But now everything happens over texting and social media, and parents don’t know.”
Cuccia pointed out that texting and social media aren’t inherently bad things but can conceal dating violence. He reminded parents that they might not know everything going on in their children’s lives and to talk with their children about what is healthy and what is not.
In addition, Cuccia urged teens to speak up if they or a friend are in an unhealthy relationship. Of students who have been in or known someone in an abusive relationship, only 33 percent have reported it, he said.
“We need you guys to speak up and shine a light on it. That’s how awareness works; the more light you shine, the more of a difference can be made,” he said.
He also reminded them to stick together with friends during and after a break-up, a time that can often be very dangerous. Being alone with an abusive partner during or after a break-up increases the chance of violence and is how his daughter lost her life.
Cuccia has talked to 60,000 students at nearly 70 school assemblies. He and his family fought to get a bill passed to urge Pennsylvania schools to incorporate information about dating violence into their curriculums.
The Cuccias host a website, http://www.demibrae.com, and a Facebook page that they use to spread awareness about dating violence and to communicate with students and parents all over the world.
“We can never undo the bad that was done to our daughter, but God somehow has a way of turning the most horrific tragedies into something good,” Cuccia said. “Demi’s story is making a difference.”
Sunday’s lecture was the first of a series focused on real issues that teens face such as drug and alcohol use, safe driving and recreational sex. Speakers for February, March and April will be announced at a later date.
“We have to approach these timely, difficult issues with a seriousness of faith and approach them for what they are,” said Father Matthew J. Morelli, parochial vicar and director of youth ministry at the parish.
Matthew DePaola, a sophomore from Penn Trafford High School, said the talk was educational. “This could happen to anyone, and it’s a great thing to get people aware about,” he said.