NEW YORK — Isis Sapp-Grant was a tough, fearless teenager who used to play "one punch knockout" with her friends. They'd stand outside the subway station and randomly pick someone coming out to try to knock unconscious with one punch.
Ms. Sapp-Grant was a gangbanger, the leader of the "Deceptinettes," the female arm of one of New York City's most notorious high school gangs. Violence had become her way of life.
"It made me feel good, high and powerful - visible when for the most part I felt very invisible and powerless," says Sapp-Grant, with flowing dreadlocks to her waist and wide almond eyes set against high cheekbones.
At the time, she was on the cutting edge of a disturbing trend that hadn't yet registered in the nation's crime statistics or consciousness - a steady increase in violence by adolescent girls.
By 1996, the most recent year available, the anecdotal evidence had turned into a documented social problem. During the previous four years, the FBI's violent crime index for young girls had risen 25 percent. During the same period for young boys, it remained level.
"The numbers are still small, but it's a trend you don't expect to see," says Eileen Poe-Yamagata, of the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh.
Now, as a college graduate with a master's degree in social work, Sapp-Grant has dedicated her life to turning that trend around. "People don't realize how serious it really is," she says.
What little research that's been done has tied the increase in violence and gang activity among young women to a variety of factors. They range from the breakdown of the family and increase in child abuse to the heightened levels of violence on the streets and on television to society's changing gender roles.
Estimates suggest that at least 70 percent of female juvenile offenders have been victims of child abuse. A study done by the Center for Women Policy Studies in Washington found that young girls who had been victims of violence - sexual assault or physical abuse - were twice as likely to believe violence was an acceptable way to solve problems.
"They felt like it was OK to be violent if someone is going to be violent to them," says Jennifer Tucker, the center's vice president. "One of them said, 'If you wait for them to do it to you, you're already a victim.' "
Sapp-Grant knows and acknowledges the literature. But her first-hand experience gives her other insights. The crux of the problem, to her, lies in an inherent sense of powerlessness and futility. "It was acted out everyday in front of me," she says of her low-income Brooklyn neighborhood. "You had crazy people all around. You've got idiots hanging on the corner, and drug dealers were the ones making the money. It just didn't seem that there was any legit way out of it. We just learned how to become a part of that environment."
Carl Taylor, the author of "Girls, Gangs, Women and Drugs," says it's not surprising that young women raised in a violent sexist culture have begun to turn their aggression outward.
"You see a normal evolution to 'I'm tired of being beaten down, I'm also tired of being the second-class citizen.' " says Mr. Taylor, a criminologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing. "Young women I'm talking to in gangs are no longer willing to hold the weapon or be the mules - carry the drugs for male gang members. They're becoming much more autonomous."
New focus on girl violence
The nation's social-service system is beginning to respond. Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia have identified female offenders as a group that needs to be addressed. A handful has also implemented programs aimed at female juvenile offenders and at-risk girls. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, part of the US Justice Department, is preparing a set of guidelines and "best practices" for dealing with female offenders. But the territory is still new.
"Not that much has been written about girls and violence," says John Galea, the former head of the New York Police Department's street gang intelligence unit. "But a lot of new problems come up when females enter the equation."
Sapp-Grant says she learned early that the crazier she acted, the more respect she got. People wouldn't "mess" with her because they were afraid. It started as a way for her and friends to protect themselves. But it quickly spiraled into a cycle of violence. "After you hurt people a couple of times, you gonna create enemies and you can't get out," she says.
The violence also became like a drug. "We fought and we hurt people because it made us feel better about ourselves," she says. "We used violence as an escape."
Sapp-Grant sees the same sense of powerlessness and frustration in the young women she works with today. Many want out of the gang, but are afraid, just as she was, that they'd be killed by rival gang members.
Her escape started with an internal change. She realized she was going to two to three funerals a month. Then the leader of the male gang played "one punch knockout" one too many times. He hit someone coming out of the subway - who fired three bullets back. The gang leader ended up paralyzed.
Sapp-Grant then spent a night in jail. Being shackled reminded her of her ancestors. Her whole life seemed out of control. Then another close friend was shot and killed. Soon after that, she crawled into her mother's bed one night for comfort. "I didn't know if I was dreaming, but I woke up and she was standing over me, pleading. She said, 'I want you to live. I want you to choose to live,' " she says.
Bye, bye gangbangers
And she did. With the help of several teachers, and Mr. Galea, the head of the police gang unit, she finished high school and got into college - far away from New York. "People were still calling my house, threatening me and my family," she says.
Today, she is married, eight months pregnant, back in New York, and determined to heal the wounds she's inflicted. There's not a day that goes by, she says, that she doesn't think of the people she hurt and ask forgiveness.
She's now got a full-time job directing programs for at-risk girls. On her own time, she's also founded the Youth Empowerment Mission. She talks to high schools and parents groups. She works one on one with girl gang members in lock-up. She rides the subways to find them, and travels to affluent suburbs to remind residents that gang violence isn't confined to the inner-city.
"The hardest thing to do is to be an individual," she told a group of women in Westchester County recently. "But once you feel the real hope, once you feel the real power of positive living, you become visible again."
In her new role as gangbanger-turned-peacemaker, Sapp-Grant is trying to stem a worrisome crime trend one girl at a time. "She's not the solution, but she certainly is one of the solutions," says Galea. "Each of us can make a difference and she's trying."