Bad Girls

By Lauren R. Taylor — October 01, 2001 9 min read
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Violence among young women keeps rising, and interventions designed for boys just don’t cut it.

Shannon has been picking on Adela for a couple of weeks, and during class one day, conflict erupts.

“What are you looking at?”

“Don’t bother me.”

“Bitch, lay off. I’m gonna kick your ass.”

“I told you to leave my boyfriend alone.”

“Your boyfriend?”

“Yes, he’s my boyfriend.”

“He don’t want nothing to do with you.”

“You’re gonna f---ing get your hands off me.”

“You’re gonna f---ing get your ass kicked. . . . “

Before the teacher can figure out how to react, the two young women are out of their seats, shouting, shoving, and getting ready to do serious damage.

“Hold it, hold it, hold it!” yells DeLano Gilkey. The angry students disengage immediately, but that’s because this scene has been staged. Gilkey and the two young women work in prevention services for the Rock Island County, Illinois, Office of Education, and they’re participating in a conflict-resolution conference, teaching others what to do when—or before—girls turn violent.

Although the fight was fake, it was essentially genuine, based on situations Gilkey and his colleagues have seen in their work as truancy officers. The workshop participants—some 50 teachers, social workers, and others from around the country—have gathered, for several days this summer, at George Mason University in Northern Virginia and will spend the next few hours getting expert guidance in handling volatile moments.

Many educators are seeking this kind of help because a growing number of girls are turning to violence. Even a brief look at the statistics is frightening. Girls’ arrests for aggravated assaults increased 57 percent between 1990 and 1999, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. And between 1981 and 1997, the violent-crime arrest rate for girls rose three times faster than the rate for boys. School suspensions, though not always violence-related, indicate a similar trend, with girls’ suspensions growing 56 percent from 1990 to 1998, while boys’ rose 40 percent.

Rush Sabiston, who directs safety programs for high schools in San Mateo, California, has witnessed these changes firsthand. The number of fights between young women has increased, she says, and they’ve gotten worse; it’s harder than it used to be to pull brawling girls off each other, and more knives, guns, and other weapons are in evidence. Gang involvement is up, too, Sabiston says. “There’s not as much difference between boys and girls as there was in past years,” she adds. “The type of stuff the guys are doing, the girls are doing, as well.”

Boys, however, are still perpetrating more violence, and some of the experts argue that the jump in statistics exaggerates the problem, fueled in part by an increase in reporting of girls’ violence to police, truancy officers, and other authorities. Still, they all agree that a trend does exist. And studies suggest that girls turn to violence for gender-specific reasons. Should adults ignore the differences between the sexes when it comes to aggressive behavior, experts warn treatment of violent girls is destined to fail.

Poverty, living in a high-crime neighborhood, substance abuse—these are obviously factors that affect both boys and girls negatively. But each sex reacts differently to these obstacles, many experts argue. And one key reality separates males and females: Girls’ problems often are a direct result of their status in society. Victimization, in particular—whether physical, sexual, or emotional—is considered the first step in a girl’s journey into the criminal justice system. In a 1998 study of nearly 1,000 California female offenders ages 17 and younger, 92 percent told the National Council on Crime and Delinquency that they’d been abused in some way. Indeed, violent girls are more than twice as likely as their male counterparts to have suffered physical abuse at home and three times as likely as other girls, according to Sibylle Artz, a professor of child and youth care at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, where the problem also has grown.

Justice By Gender, a report released in May by the American Bar and National Bar associations, explains the link between victimization and violence: “Aggression is often a self-protective mechanism in response to past abuse,” and girls who are beaten come to believe that power is gained through force. They’re also more likely to get involved with partners who are abusive and often get them involved in crime.

Girls’ problems often are a direct result of their status in society.

Leslie Acoca, a girls’ violence specialist who conducted the study for the NCCD, also makes note of poor academic performance. She found that failing in school was nearly as universal as victimization among the study’s subjects, with more than 90 percent having been left back, suspended, expelled, or placed in a special classroom. Artz, who studied 5,400 kids in 16 Canadian schools, arrived at similar results: Girls who’d committed violence had weak attachments to school, even in the early grades. They also didn’t fit in well among classmates.

Depression is another indicator that distinguishes violent girls from violent boys. The girls, Artz says, are three times as likely to suffer from depression that is rooted in low self-esteem, negative body image, and feelings of helplessness.

“Girls who get into trouble probably have some sort of self-confidence problems, and they need to figure out who they are, like by going to counseling,” said one girl who participated in Artz’s study. “And the victims need help, they need to get their [self-esteem] built because most people don’t try to steal other people’s boyfriends and go around calling people sluts and whatnot. Seems to me that those people are doing things the wrong way, trying to get on top in a negative way, and then they get pounded on.”

As violent as some of these girls appear to be, some experts argue that the statistics cited in recent studies have been blown out of proportion. Although Justice Department reports of a 57 percent increase in aggravated assaults among girls between 1990 and 1999 may seem alarming, the number of incidents in 1999 amounted to just 7,948—as opposed to 28,147 among boys.

Others argue that a small percentage of girls has always been violent; it’s just that 10 or 20 years ago, teachers and administrators didn’t take such incidents seriously. “Girls’ capacity for aggression and violence has historically been ignored, trivialized, or denied,” says Meda Chesney-Lind, a University of Hawaii criminologist. Recently, however, zero tolerance and other forms of get-tough policies enacted by administrators hoping either to prevent or de-escalate violence in schools, have dragged girls into the crime-fighting net. Once a school incident becomes a criminal matter, the authorities—police, prosecutors, judges—tend to punish girls particularly harshly, simply because they are not behaving in ways that have been considered proper for their gender.

In California, for example, Acoca reports that fights between teenagers and their parents—even not very serious scuffles, including those started by an adult—are ending with girls in handcuffs. A typical police report reads: “Father lunged at [girl] while she was calling the police about a domestic dispute. She hit him with the phone cord.” Says Acoca, “We are increasingly willing to criminalize very unhealthy home situations of girls.”

The debate over just how violent girls have become aside, researchers do know that girls respond well to help. Artz, for example, found that programs aimed at prevention and intervention helped lower the rate of school-based violent incidents by 50 percent among girls. And females, more often than males, embrace values like friendship and forgiveness that counteract aggression.

Most anti-violence programs are designed specifically for boys. Very little research has been conducted on what works for females.

But most anti-violence programs are designed specifically for boys. Very little research has been conducted on what works for females. “Girls have different needs than boys,” says Marci Feldman, assistant director of violence-prevention programs at Harvard University’s school of public health. “We can’t just use a cookie-cutter approach.” While boys often respond well to behavioral strategies, such as anger management, girls require an approach aimed at underlying causes. Most girls suppress their rage much more than boys—who, traditionally, have been dissuaded less from displaying their anger and frustration.

So what are the alternatives for girls? In 1998, the Justice Department released Guiding Principles for Promising Female Programming, a report that suggests providing female students with relationship skills, career awareness, and academic support. At the top of the list, according to many experts, is having a trusted adult in their lives. He or she must “let kids know that ‘if you have a problem, I’m going to listen to you,’ ” says Brenda Melton, a counselor who works at a San Antonio alternative school for serious offenders. “Where we see a lot of anger and hostility, that’s where their needs are not being met.”

While acknowledging the value of individual efforts, Chesney-Lind points to broader social issues. “We have to get beyond both the denial and the demonization of girls’ aggression and violence,” she says. “There is no magic bullet: It is part of a national conversation about youth and violence. We just need to make sure that girls are at the table.”

In Washington, D.C., on a pressure cooker of a summer afternoon, girls are at the table. They’re gathered in a government office building for a session by Sistas Womanhood Training, a local nonprofit group. Sistas works with young women in trouble with the law and at-risk girls in the district’s schools. The eight participants, ages 13 to 17, have all been told by a judge that they must attend the sessions. As Loretta Jones, Sistas co-founder, puts it, “There are some fighters in here.”

Slumped in their seats, looking simultaneously resentful and giggly, cynical and childlike, the young women have just watched an Oprah episode on teenage murderers. But they’re reluctant to discuss how violence has touched their own lives. Then, when Jones raises the subject of being called a name—"bitch,” “whore,” and other incendiary labels—the conversation picks up.

And, at times, what the girls say amply demonstrates just how far the discussion on female violence has to go before the statistics can be turned around.

One participant, a sweet-faced young woman with a T-shirt tied around her head, notes that, in the “good old days,” a girl used to be able to throw a few punches during a fight, then move on. “Now it’s just too much,” she says. “You have to really get back at them.” Conflicts can last for weeks and sometimes involve weapons and “crews” facing off against each other. “Fights don’t end these days like they used to,” the girl adds. “I miss that.”

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