Hazing case highlights girl violence

Round-the-clock coverage of brutal hazing ritual in Chicago suburb has renewed nation's interest in female aggression.

By now, people around the world have been shocked by the graphic footage of high school girls kicking, punching, and dousing each other with all manner of foul substances, from fish guts to feces.

From the humiliation to the violence - which landed five girls in the hospital - the story mirrors most instances of hazing rituals pushed too far. But what really seems to be striking a chord with many commentators - and ensuring that the footage has been playing on news stations around the clock since the story broke on Wednesday - is that these were girls being so brutal to each other. Middle-class, suburban, high-school girls.

This particular hazing ritual, which occurred at a "powder puff" football game between senior and junior girls from Glenbrook North High School in suburban Chicago, may simply be an isolated incident. But it's focusing renewed attention on a problem that grabbed headlines a year ago: Are girls, in their way, every bit as mean as boys are?

"We are a country that doesn't want to believe its girls are aggressive," says Rachel Simmons, author of "Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls." "I have no doubt this is one of countless incidents of [girls'] aggression."\ Most of the attention last year looked at emotional violence. Rosalind Wiseman's book "Queen Bees & Wannabes" analyzed the brutal cliques and gossip that define the worlds of many high school girls.

But the Northbrook incident, says Ms. Wiseman, goes beyond those hurtful tactics to the need for acceptance that's built into hazing. "It's an initiation rite," she says. "You get to be like us if you denigrate yourself, humiliate yourself, if we put you down. Then the reward is, you get to become like us."

Wiseman runs the Empower Program, which works to end the culture of violence among children, and says solutions need to come from adults. Demonizing the perpetrators - the usual response to an incident like this - doesn't help in the long run, she says. Instead, "the adults in the community have to look at themselves in the mirror and say, 'How am I contributing to this problem by refusing to take responsibility for my kid's behavior? How can I support the school?' "

Part of what has fixated news stations on this story is the setting. Northbrook, Ill., is a picture-perfect suburb, a cliché of maple-lined streets, manicured lawns, and large sandstone homes. Not the sort of place a girls' brawl is supposed to happen. Ms. Simmons, however, says it's time people get over their misconceptions that such violence only occurs among inner-city, at-risk girls. "These girls are just as capable of it as anybody else."

That fact has been tough to swallow for Northbrook residents, who've suddenly had their small corner of the world catapulted into the news. "You think of this as such a nice place," says Susan Johnson as she plays in the village green with her two children. "Now I have my own concern that this is something my daughter is going to have to deal with when she goes to high school here."

It comes as less of a surprise to Isabel Phipps, who raised three sons here and has lived in Northbrook for 38 years. The powder-puff game, says Ms. Phipps, "is common knowledge among parents." She remembers when her son was a senior, and her husband followed him to the liquor store and stopped him - a vigilance she'd like to see more of.

Key to any solution may simply be defining the problem. While this incident mirrors boys' hazing violence, Simmons notes that girls' aggression often passes under the radar screen. Schools' antiviolence policies typically focus on traditionally male, physical aggression, so that "girls know the rules don't apply to them," she says. Even in the Northbrook case, Simmons says it's significant that it occurred in a wooded lot, off school property. "Girls don't fight in hallways."

Already, the hubbub surrounding last year's flurry of books and articles has spawned programs that specifically target female aggression. The Ophelia Project, based in Erie, Pa., for instance, has developed intervention and mentoring programs that run nationwide. But advocates for change make it clear the solutions are just beginning. "Everything is very nascent," explains Simmons. "But I believe we need to define this behavior as a social problem, and build a language and a consciousness about it."

Staff writers Marilyn Gardner and Noel Paul contributed to this report from Boston and Northbrook, Ill.

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