Sunday, December 16, 2007

Hype Over More Violent Girls Lacks Statistics To Back It Up

Hype Over More Violent Girls Lacks Statistics To Back It Up
By DONNA KOEHN, The Tampa Tribune

Published: December 16, 2007

Clips on YouTube show teenage girls scratching, punching and pulling hair in brawls as boys look on in amusement.

A nationally broadcast videotape shows a Hillsborough mother encouraging her daughter to hit a girl on a school bus in March.

Bookstore shelves bulge with volumes attesting to increasing violence among girls. There's "Queen Bees and Wannabes" (2002), which describes relational aggression, excessive cruelty by girls to each other. Taking concerns further were "Sugar & Spice and No Longer Nice" (2005) and "See Jane Hit" (2006), which claim our society has hardened girls into physically aggressive bullies who enjoy brutality.

"Before a girl - someone's daughter - commits a national-attention-grabbing, horrible act of violence like the shootings at Columbine High School, something needs to be done," warn Deborah Prothrow-Stith and Howard R. Spivak, authors of "Sugar & Spice and No Longer Nice."

Although girl violence is more visible today, panic over an uprising of angry young women would be misguided, many say.

"To be honest, I see a decline in the fighting," says Pearl Ershery of Mulrennan Middle School in Valrico, who has been a guidance counselor in Hillsborough County for 15 years.

Crime rates for girls have dropped each year for the past 13 years, reaching their lowest levels since 1973, according to a 2006 report by the U.S. Department of Justice. Murder by girls is at its lowest level since 1963.

So Why The Hype?

Fear of girls gone wild has been around longer than Florida spring breaks.

In the 1940s, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover warned of juvenile delinquents who learned to misbehave while unsupervised as their fathers fought in World War II and their mothers riveted in factories.

"This country is in deadly peril," Hoover said. "A creeping rot of moral disintegration is eating into our nation."

The numbers then were scary: Girls' sex offenses were up 400 percent. In Boston, in one year, reporters noted a 40 percent increase in the number of girls brought to juvenile court.

Popular books and movies picked up the cry. Columbia Pictures' "Girls Under 21" heralded, "They start by stealing a lipstick ... finish with a slaying!"

Girls were described as "man crazy," "rebellious" and "so young, so bad."

Now their great-granddaughters are getting the same rap, says Michael Males, senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile Criminal Justice in San Francisco.

"Back then, you'd see girls shooting people in government training films," he says. "That wasn't any more valid than it is today."

The Cause For Current Concerns

Recent statistics have generated some frightening headlines. In 2003, the FBI reported a 41 percent increase in assaults by teenage girls from 1992 to 2003, compared with a 4.3 percent rise for boys.

However, experts say the increase is linked to a concurrent crackdown on domestic violence. Boys fight peers, but girls usually strike out at others living in their homes. Some state statutes require an arrest in cases of family violence.

Although Florida statutes don't make arrests mandatory, law enforcement officers are encouraged to assess the safety of family members and take needed action, says Martha Coulter, director of the James and Jennifer Harrell Center for the Study of Family Violence at the University of South Florida.

"When children grow up in families in which violence is a strategy, it's what they learn to do," Coulter says. "The trouble with violence is that violence works."

A study by Harvard researchers found that girls who report being victims of violence are more than twice as likely to resort to violence themselves.

In the past, girls have seen themselves as victims, Coulter says. Now, more of them may be identifying with the abuser in the household.

"I think we ignore these problems at our peril," Coulter says.

A Frank Conversation

Every student in James Pepe's sixth-period honors history class has seen a "girl fight" on campus.

Not so surprising at Durant High in Plant City, where crowded hallways and a diverse student body - along with the usual hormonal stewpot of adolescence - can cause emotions to run high.

So do girls slug it out like boys these days?

No, says the girl who admits to once pushing and shoving a girl when she felt disrespected.

Nah, says the boy with bandaged hands, broken during a fight with a guy at a park.

"Boys get beaten up," says Dee Dee Cardenas, 17. "With girls, it's hair-pulling and scratching."

Girls fight over personal issues, the students say, often defending friends against others. They ruminate over their grievances. They fume and trash talk.

Boys lash out and are done with it.

Most of the students in Pepe's class scoff at the idea that limiting their exposure to video games and violent movies or television would help curb violence.

The students acknowledge that popular postings on YouTube often feature girls duking it out while guys watch appreciatively. The music video "Girlfight" features racy, taunting lyrics and shows girls how to put Vaseline on their faces to avoid scratches.

But there's a difference between laughing at the images and emulating them, the teens insist.

Cassandra Martin, 17, a peer mediator at Durant, says talking it out helps smooth over rough relationship issues.

"I think, for girls, reality shows they see on TV" make a difference, she says, citing the catfights on "The Hills" and "Laguna Beach" on MTV. "They compare those to real life.

"But I play 'Grand Theft Auto,' and that doesn't mean I'm going to go out and hit someone with a bat."

For years, adults have fretted about teenage boys, worrying about their aggression and recklessness. Now, with girls passing easily into competitive, formerly male domains such as sports and academics, concerns have escalated that girls, too, will rage out of control.

Males, of the Center on Juvenile Criminal Justice, says young women are being scapegoated unjustly.

"We as a society are afraid of girls," he says. "Girls are more out there in the world now. They're practically taking over our universities. This is frightening a lot of people, who want it to go back to the way it used to be."

Reporter Donna Koehn can be reached at (813) 259-8264 or dkoehn@tampatrib .com.

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