Sunday, November 19, 2017
Public safety

Domestic violence can happen to anyone, victim tells Clearwater students

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CLEARWATER — The young woman who survived 32 stab wounds, a stroke, a slashed voice box and a broken heart kept repeating the same four words: I'm just like you.

Before a crowd of Countryside High School students early Thursday, Melissa Dohme, 20, described the night police say her high school sweetheart, the love of her life, tried to kill her.

I'm just like you.

Before he was accused by police of knifing her hands, head and throat Jan. 24 near Clearwater's Crest Lake Park, before he was charged with attempted first-degree murder, Robert Lee Burton Jr. kissed Melissa by her locker, took her to prom, sent her wake-up texts: "Good morning, beautiful."

I'm just like you.

Some students in the Media Center Thursday began to cry. Everyone was silent.

Anna Savchuk, 16, thought of her cousin and inwardly gave thanks. The cousin dated a controlling guy, once — a guy who slapped and punched her. After pleading from friends and family, she ended it two months ago.

Sure, Anna had been worried. But she never considered the relationship truly life-threatening. She didn't think someone so young, bright and well-off could be a victim of domestic violence.

But there, behind the podium, was Melissa: smart, beautiful, "Student of the Year" at St. Petersburg College. Melissa, with a penchant for white, lacy dresses and a dream to become a nurse.

Melissa, with 32 stab wounds.

I'm just like you.

A few rows behind Anna, Kim Florio, a Countryside drama teacher, watched her students in awe. They were so quiet, transfixed by Melissa's story.

Was this the same bunch who chucked pencils at each other? Linked arms and cackled down the hallways?

How tremendously important, Florio thought. Sometimes, girls approached her with confessions after class. Recently: "My boyfriend — he's jealous and angry and I don't know what to do."

Of course, she takes action. Sometimes, the girls grow angry. Some thank her.

Florio felt Melissa, a Clearwater High graduate, was reaching them. These kids, she thought, need to hear every word of this.

Chad Herman, who works at the Haven of RCS, a domestic violence center in Clearwater, thanked Melissa and took the microphone.

"Now you know the warning signs," he said. "You know it can happen to any of you. Any person in this room."

It starts subtly, Herman said.

Warning signs of an abusive boyfriend or girlfriend, according to the pamphlets printed for students by the Haven of RCS and partners, include early requests for serious commitment, extreme jealousy, possessiveness, violent outbursts and a tendency to criticize friends and family.

It's easier to prevent abuse, Herman said, when you recognize the early symptoms.

He walked the aisles, voice rising to compete with the end-of-period bzzz.

"It doesn't have to happen. We can beat domestic violence."

Danielle Paquette can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4224. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

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