ASHLAND, Mass. -- Along with corsages and rented limos, prom season evokes grimmer images for many Massachusetts students: a bloodstained dress, and the tale of a girl's relationship with a murderously abusive boyfriend.
As part of a statewide effort to combat teen dating violence, thousands of students at dozens of high schools have seen ''The Yellow Dress,'' a play based on real events, set on the eve of a prom. Only in the final act does the heroine reveal she was battered to death the previous day.
While few states approach the scope of Massachusetts' program, many school districts nationwide are treating dating violence with increasing seriousness.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 22 percent of high school students have been victims, with girls usually the target in the most serious cases.
''We need to find ways for our young women to be equals in relationships,'' said Gail Gauthier, the health coordinator at Ashland High School. She organized showings of ''The Yellow Dress'' last week for ninth- and 10th-graders.
Dating violence isn't new. Boyfriends and girlfriends have been insulting and slapping each other since high school romances began. But experts detect some worrisome trends: possessive dating behavior extending into ever-younger ages, and surveys suggesting many teens think some degree of dating violence is acceptable.
''The problem is probably a bit more prevalent than it was decades ago,'' said Rebecca Yarmuth, who oversees dating-violence programs for the Seattle community agency New Beginnings. ''But the biggest change is the awareness of it and the reporting of it. Because it involved younger people, it used to be discounted as puppy love.''
Many adults still underestimate the dangers, according to Carole Sousa, a consultant to the Massachusetts Department of Education. She notes that domestic violence laws in most states are tailored toward adult relationships and fail to account for the special problems of teen-age victims.
''As a society, we're not getting kids the message that we're taking it seriously,'' she said.
At Ashland High, a school of 600 students 30 miles west of Boston, administrators have been taking the issue seriously for several years. Dating violence is addressed in the health curriculum, and almost every student has seen ''The Yellow Dress.''
The play is taken to schools throughout Massachusetts and sometimes other states by Deana's Fund, founded by the family and friends of Deana Brisebois. The young woman from Topsfield, Mass., died in a car crash in 1994; the driver, unscathed, was her abusive boyfriend.
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