WARWICK, N.Y. — An attractive 10th-grade girl walks into her school hallway at 7:15 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. Another girl approaches. Two sentences of conversation ensue before the first girl is punched in the face, falls backward, and hits her head on the floor. The assailant leans over, taunts her, and asks how tough she feels now. The victim's offense? Making comments that the other girl "doesn't know how to put on makeup right."
This is a real episode of "girl on girl" violence that I witnessed.
Government statistics show a rise in such violence - the number of girls ages 10 to 17 arrested for aggravated assault has doubled over the past two decades. This validates what most of us in the trenches of high schools see every day: Girls who resort to physical violence when they feel lied to, gossiped about, or simply dealt some evil looks from other girls across the cafeteria.
Many girls now imitate the swaggering behavior of those males who are content to swing first and ask questions later.
We can't protect our daughters from every eventuality. But here are a few steps you can take to help your daughter become smarter, and safer, at school:
• Learn whom to avoid. The likely fighters at your daughter's school give clues that are usually readable a mile away. Look for girls who are always in verbal conflicts with other girls, who write things about other girls on the Internet, who have an inordinate interest in the boyfriends of others, and who sprinkle their language with expressions that reveal their interest in challenging others. Avoid these girls; they may involve your daughter in their drama. Your daughter probably knows exactly whom I am talking about.
• Remind your daughter that all her Instant Messages, any comments she makes about other girls online, and all computer messages sent "privately" may be shared with 30 other people at the same time. Don't leave taunting "away messages" and don't mention other girls' boyfriends in them.
• Don't argue with a crazy person. Social workers and police practice this principle all the time. Crazy/angry/assaultive people must be spoken to calmly, not disputed or challenged. If an angry girl is giving your daughter some dramatically nonsensical story, the best response is a neutral statement, like, "I'm not sure we really have the whole story yet, and I don't have any conflict with you." Teach your daughter not to rise to the same emotional pitch as the other person.
• Your daughter should know who in her school will help mediate a conflict peacefully. Every high school in America should have either a peer mediation program or a designated counselor who has time to deal with these problems. Your high school PTA/PTO should check and see if this is the case and should ask: How are students made aware of the program? Whom do students contact if they are having a problem, or if they hear of one brewing? When can a student bring a conflict to this person? Will the report be confidential? There's simply no excuse for these programs not being built into the structure of our high schools. If your school can find the money to pay a third assistant football coach, it can find the money to pay an active peer mediation adviser to help reduce violence in your hallways.
• Teach your daughter that gossip is destructive. Often the assailant in these fights feels powerless to stop what she feels to be a tidal wave of gossip directed at her. For example: Simply put, your daughter has no business spreading rumors, or even factual information, about the sexual reputation of others.
• Encourage your daughter to have unique expressive outlets. Running, swimming, tennis, music, singing, yoga, writing poetry, and creating artwork are all preferable to wasting time engaging in provocative back-and-forth with other girls. Help make these activities possible.
• Encourage her to become a peacemaker herself. If no peer mediation program exists at her school, have her find a faculty adviser and start one.
• Listen to her when she needs to vent frustration with behavior she sees around her. Don't dismiss it or minimize it. Validate her experience and praise her when she finds peaceful resolutions to her problems.
Sending your daughter off to school need not be fraught with fear. Just make sure she knows what is out there and how to proceed when she encounters the angry, gossipy, violent girl whose locker is 10 feet away.
• Jerry Sander has worked with inner-city, suburban, and rural teenagers as a certified social worker in private practice, in agencies, and in schools for 19 years. 'Permission Slips' is his new novel.