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Micah's HOPE

After her boyfriend became violent while they were on a date, Micah Jeppesen decided to share her story in the film “Standing Strong” so that other young people will be aware of what to look for – and what to watch out for – in a relationship. Ruth Nerhaugen / Contributor

She thought it was normal for a boyfriend to be protective, and a bit jealous. It showed he cared.

At first, the Cannon Falls High School senior didn't mind that he seemed to be making all the decisions.

"It was my first relationship, so I didn't know what the boundaries were," said Micah Jeppesen, a Cannon Falls native who was 18 at the time. "I didn't know what to expect."

Gradually he started getting critical of her. He told Jeppesen that no one else would want to be with her, and that she didn't really deserve him. If anything went wrong, it was her fault.

Jeppesen noticed that he was trying to separate her from her friends and her family.

A cheerleader and an athlete who enjoyed softball and track, she considered herself a happy person with good friends. But her self-esteem was plummeting, and she found herself getting depressed.

Just before prom, her boyfriend of over a year got upset with her.

"He slapped my face. He grabbed me and threw me to the ground," Jeppesen recalled. But she let it pass. He was sorry.

According to Loveisrespect — launched in 2015 as a project of the National Domestic Violence Hotline to help young people prevent and end abusive relationships — violent behavior typically begins between 12 and 18 years old.

Then came June 21 — Father's Day 2015.

They were driving home from a graduation party when he pulled over. The outing turned into a nightmare.

"He snapped," Jeppesen said. He pulled her hair hard, banging her head against the car window, and started to choke her.

When she managed to get out of the car and tried to run away, he chased and caught her. He dragged her by her hair back to the car, punching her and hurting her arm.

Jeppesen managed to get in the car first. She locked the doors and quickly drove away, frightened and hurting.

"I thought I was going to lose my life," she said. "I was scared that he had a nut loose. ... I didn't expect him to do something like that."

While she was driving home, Jeppesen said, "He kept calling me. He kept saying he was scared and I needed to come and pick him up.

"He did not seem to realize that was the end of our relationship. I was not going to put up with it any more."

Jeppesen had her cellphone in her pocket, so she called her father and drove home.

"My dad called the cops," she said. "I wanted to file charges right away, to keep him away from me and my family." Police suggested options including a harassment restraining order or an order for protection.

They took photos of her injuries and went out to the field where the attack had occurred to look for the purse she had to leave behind.

After making sure that her arm was not broken and that she did not have a concussion, police advised her to go to the emergency room.

Women between the ages of 16 and 24 experience the highest rate of intimate partner violence at almost triple the national average, according to Loveisrespect, and of those victims who were 16-19 years old, 94 percent were abused by a current or former partner.

"People were shocked" to see her at the Cannon Falls hospital, Jeppesen recalled. "You don't expect things like this to happen in a small town."

She had bruises and scratches. Some of her hair was pulled out, and her earrings were ripped from her earlobes. Her face was bloody.

Her parents stayed with her until the hospital released her around 3 a.m.

Meanwhile, Jeppesen's boyfriend had run the 10 miles into town and gone to his brother's house.

"The police came and broke down the door. He was arrested for assault," Jeppesen said. He was charged and spent the next three days in jail.

Later he was sentenced to 30 days in jail and electronic home monitoring. "It's a felony for three years," Jeppesen said, then will drop to a misdemeanor if he has no repeat offenses. He was ordered to attend anger management sessions.

Being attacked and beaten while she was on a date had lingering emotional effects on her. She was diagnosed with a form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

It took therapy to help her accept that violence is something that happens to you, not because of you.

According to Loveisrespect, half of youth victims of dating violence and rape attempt suicide, compared to 12.5 percent of non-abused girls and 5.4 percent of non-abused boys.

Her father found HOPE Coalition on the internet. The coalition, headquartered in Red Wing, serves people who are abused or disadvantaged — victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, homelessness and lack of basic needs.

She learned the importance of getting out of a bad relationship. "I learned to take matters in my own hands," Jeppesen said.

She decided to do something more because, she explained, "I didn't want it to happen to other people."

Her mother, Elise Taube, supported her decision and offered some advice to other parents.

"Being a mother of a daughter, all I can say is follow your heart," Taube said. "I felt like something was wrong and I wished I would have pushed her to talk to me.

"I am learning that violence does not discriminate against age. Our kids are not always safe, no matter how much you track them or talk to them or how open your relationship is."

Jeppesen decided she wanted to tell her story and warn other young people what to look for in a relationship — and what to watch out for.

She is in the minority, according to Loveisrespect, with estimates that roughly 33 percent of teens in an abusive relationship ever told someone.

Still, she hesitated when HOPE Coalition Development Coordinator Linda Flanders, who has filmmaking experience, asked her if she would tell her story in a video that would be shared with others.

"I thought people would think I was doing it to get attention," Jeppesen said. But her therapist and her parents encouraged her to make the film so others would recognize the signs of an abusive relationship.

"Hopefully, by getting this information out there and kids seeing that this happens, they too can speak out for their friends," Taube said. "It's not a normal thing."

Making the film "wasn't as bad as I thought it would be," Jeppesen said. She had told the story many times to family and friends in the months following the violence, and knew it made an impact.

"Thanks for stepping up and sharing your story," one person told her. "I was in a situation like that and I didn't know what to do."

Flanders filmed a "teaser" and previewed it at a fundraiser in Cannon Falls last fall. With support from the community, enough money was raised to finish "Standing Strong," a 13-minute film that's available on HOPE Coalition's YouTube channel.

Jeppesen continued to reach out this spring. She spoke to several Red Wing High School health classes and HOPE Coalition's Kids Count group, attended Kids Count's annual child abuse vigil, and appeared with Flanders at the Minnesota Office of Justice Programs' Conference on Crime and Victimization.

"I was kind of surprised," she said, at how many young people — both girls and boys — asked her how to tell if a relationship is abusive, and how to get out of it.

It's a myth that only girls get abused, Jeppesen pointed out. "In reality, it can happen to anyone, male or female."

The Centers for Disease Control estimate roughly one in seven men have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner, while women is one in four.

Jeppesen is attending college now, pursuing a degree in nursing. "I've wanted to go into pediatric nursing since I was little," she said. She also plans to get her EMT license this summer.

It wasn't easy for her to resume dating, but she has crossed that barrier, too.

"A lot of things (a date) would do would remind me of him and set me off," Jeppesen said. "It took a few times to become comfortable with a guy again. Raised voices set me off for a while."

The guy she is dating now is not like her first boyfriend.

"I blew off all the signs" the first time, she said. Things are different today. "I would recognize the signs. They're a lot more visible now."

Her advice to anyone who is in an emotionally or physically abusive relationship is simple: "Get out of it as soon as possible. Be with someone who makes you happy."

RiverTown reporter John Russett contributed to this story.