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."

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.

"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."

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.

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