Behind the surge in girl crime
The headlines pull no punches: "Girls getting increasingly violent," "Violent crime by girls rising," "Girls not all sugar and spice."Skip to next paragraph
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That apparent rise in aggression seems to be borne out by FBI arrest statistics for girls, which have skyrocketed over the past decade and a half, leapfrogging past the rate of arrests for boys. Girls now account for 29 percent of all juvenile arrests, up from 23 percent in 1990.
So, have the butt-kicking antics of the likes of Lara Croft, the videogame figure turned film character, and the sexing up of female violence in the media finally spun out into real life?
Many who study girls and violence say the statistics may not tell the whole story. Yes, they agree, physical violence once associated only with boys is finding its way into more girl fights. And girls' bullying and teasing - psychological violence - have intensified with the help of technology to a new level of nastiness. But the high-profile cases and dramatic arrest stats may still overstate a problem that is actually more complex and subtle, these experts say.
"No question, arrests are going up," says Meda Chesney-Lind, a professor in the women's studies program at the University of Hawaii. "The issue is whether it is girls' behavior or policy changes that are driving that pattern."
Much of the evidence, she and other researchers say, points to changes in practices and policies, some spurred by public alarm at the crime wave of the 1980s and early '90s. Three influences are bumping up the numbers, says Dr. Chesney-Lind, author of the research paper "Girls and violence: Is the gender gap closing?":
• Relabelling: Behavior that was once categorized as a status offense - such as running away from home, scuffling with family members, truancy, and repeated discipline problems - is now sometimes put in the violent offenses category.
• "Upcriming": Zero-tolerance policies in schools have turned minor offenses that once might have been dealt with informally into arrestable crimes with more severe penalties.
• Rediscovery: Awareness is growing in the media and among policymakers of girls' violence, which was always there but largely ignored, since the juvenile justice system has traditionally been geared toward boys. (Self-report studies show that girls commit many more offenses than show up in official arrest stats.)
"Until relatively recently girls' aggression was trivialized, minimalized, ignored," says Dr. Shari Miller-Johnson, a senior research scientist with the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University. "People really didn't pay any attention to it."
Girls have been overlooked as instigators of violence, adds Dr. Erika Karres, an education researcher in Chapel Hill, N.C., because society thought only boys could be violent. Girls' meanness and bullying are just now being reported. One reason, she says, is that "girls' violence is not as obvious and in your face as it is from boys. You don't see too many second-grade girls punching each other out."
But it's there, these researchers say. And it's being noticed. And it's getting nastier, even if it may not be growing as fast as the statistics suggest.
Boys are more physically aggressive than girls, but when verbal aggression is added to the mix - teasing, shouting, insulting - girls catch up fast, researchers say. Anecdotal evidence suggests girls are adopting more boy tactics and becoming more physical in their fights.