Behind the surge in girl crime
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"Girls look on physical violence as much more acceptable now," says Cheryl Dellasega, author of "Girl Wars" and a professor at Pennsylvania State University's College of Medicine. "They get the message from movies ... where women are not only gorgeous but they beat another woman up without thinking twice about it." Girls also have more venues in which to be aggressive, Dr. Dellasega adds, listing cellphones, instant-messaging, e-mail, and online chat groups. "There's no safe place," she says, "and I think that's upped the ante."Skip to next paragraph
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That cyberbullying and cyberviolence can then spill over into physical fights the next day at school - and into the news with such incidents as the Williamsport, Pa., girl who shot another classmate in the shoulder out of anger for being teased, or the hazing last year at Chicago's Glenbrook North High School.
The danger of reading too much into headline news is that it can blow a single incident into scary proportions. Chesney-Lind points to the ripple effect of the Columbine shootings in 1999. "Mostly we don't have a huge [school violence] problem there. But you can't tell that to a country that watched that much of that incident," she says.
It's part of what Randall Shelden calls the confirmation bias, and he cautions against extrapolating too far. "We will look for things that will reinforce our suspicions or our bias.... So every time we read a story about some girl getting picked up carrying a knife or whatever, we'll say, 'Ah!' " explains the criminologist at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
The spike in juvenile violence started in the late '80s, reaching a peak in 1994, when it began a steady downward trend, according to the US Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
By 2001, juvenile violent crime arrests had dropped 44 percent. But while boys' crimes - almost three-quarters of all offenses - were tapering off, girls' crimes were still rising or at least declining at a slower rate.
According to the FBI, girls' arrests rose 6.4 percent from 1992 to 2003, while boys' dropped 16.4 percent. In the area of assault, girls' arrests shot up 40.9 percent over the same period, while boys' climbed just 4.3 percent.
What fuels some researchers' suspicions that these stats may not be telling the whole story are data such as the self-reports done by the Centers for Disease Control. Between 1991 and 2001, self-reported delinquency revealed that the number of girls getting into physical fights actually dropped 30 percent.
Research into girls' violence is relatively new, taking on significant momentum only in the past decade. Most major case studies have focused on boys, but girls' motivations are strikingly different and more relationship driven than boys'.
Developing specialized programs for girls and looking at that difference are important, Dellasega says, "because I don't think there will be any true intervention that will be successful until that happens."
Another compelling reason to understand girls and delinquency, says Dr. Miller-Johnson, is that girls who are highly aggressive are also more likely to become pregnant as teens. "And we know that teen mothers are at greater risk of increased abuse and neglect," which leads to "intergenerational transmission of violence." In other words, the cycle continues.