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Have girls really gone wild?

Girl brawlt

In this image taken from video released by the Suffolk County Police Department, a 13-year-old girl, left, is beaten by one of the three teenage girls that attacked her in a North Babylon, N.Y. school yard on Dec. 18, 2006. The victim, who thought she was meeting another teen to resolve a love triangle, was instead dragged by her hair, beaten and kicked repeatedly in the head. The video of the attack was posted online and broadcast nationwide, resulting in the arrest of three attackers on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2007 on charges of juvenile delinquency with an underlying charge of attempted assault.

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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Six Eau Claire High School students, all girls, are arrested for fighting as students board buses after school.

WOONSOCKET, R.I. -- Two mothers and their daughters, both 13, are arrested after one woman drives her already suspended daughter to Woonsocket Middle School to fight a teenage rival.

PITTSBURGH, PA -- As police try to calm two groups of teens yelling at each other, a brawl breaks out involving 20 females. One girl is bashed in the head with a brick, and her mother is bitten on the ear.

Incidents like these are showing up in news media reports across the country, often to illustrate a common theme: American girls are becoming more violent.

But have girls really gone so wild? A U.S. Justice Department report, under internal review and due out in about a month, will largely conclude that they haven't -- or at least that there's no data to support that they have.

There is a controversy about that. Some think police today are more likely to arrest girls for violent acts. Other even think girl violence is underestimated.

"We don't have good evidence that it is increasing. We think it's not getting worse," said Margaret Zahn, lead investigator for the Girls Study Group, a panel of experts assembled by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. "The media [approach] is always, 'If it bleeds, it leads.' I do wish the media would be more careful about how these things are reported."

But the drumbeat continues. Just last week, "CBS Evening News" reported on a group of Long Island girls who videotaped vicious assaults and put them on the Internet. That story also featured commentary by James Garbarino, the author of an influential 2006 book, "See Jane Hit: Why Girls Are Growing More Violent and What We Can Do About It." Yet the consensus of most criminologists is that the "crisis" of girl violence is probably overblown, inflated by statistics gathered from reporting standards that didn't exist years ago -- such as zero tolerance policies in schools and increased reporting of domestic violence. "The empirical evidence shows it is a myth," says Penn State criminologist Darrell Steffensmeier, who is part of the Girls Study Group. "There are a lot of unanswered questions. But if you take the best evidence we have, the rates aren't any higher."

Pittsburgh police and city school police agree. "I don't think it's anything new," says Lt. Philip Dacey, who until recently commanded the East Liberty station, the busiest in the city. "And if it's shooting up, it's not happening in my area here."

Some research, however, points the other way.

Cindy Ness, program director at the John Jay Center on Terrorism and Public Safety, has studied African-American girls in Philadelphia. Her conclusion is that street fights are a way of life for girls there but that most of the battles are never reported to police. In her 2004 report, "Why Girls Fight: Female Youth Violence in the Inner City," she found that the girls she interviewed "actively pursue and enjoy physically dominating others and take pleasure in inflicting pain and in emerging victorious."

One girl, Aiesha, summed up the attitude this way: "You kidding me, girls be fighting more than boys do. They so emotional they'll fight over anything. Boys won't get into it over no he-said, she-said. They only gonna fight over something serious like money or drugs."

Ms. Ness also insists that street-fighting among girls in low-income areas is "significantly underestimated." "I think it's largely an inner-city phenomenon," she says. "I think it's ratcheted up. But it's not to say it's crazy out of control. It's not this sense of Girls Gone Wild! It's more subtle than that."

Girls are definitely getting arrested for assault and aggravated assault more often than they used to, according to figures from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports. Although juvenile arrests for violent crime are down overall, girls represent a larger percentage of those arrests. While the rate for boys declined 26 percent between 1980 and 2003, the female rate jumped 47 percent. Between those years, female assault arrests rose from about 200 for every 100,000 girls to 750.

Some analysts and media reports cite that fact in saying the "gender gap" between boys and girls is closing. Authors such as Mr. Garbarino have seized on it to bolster their contention that girls are becoming more violent. He lists plenty of reasons why this is happening: the breakdown of the family, the decline of the church and the natural evolution of the women's liberation movement, which began in the 1960s and now encourages girls to be as aggressive as boys.

He and others are also big on blaming the entertainment industry for featuring "violent femmes" in action roles, such as gun-toting Lara Croft and sword-wielding Uma Thurman in "Kill Bill." Even the highbrow heroine of the Harry Potter books, Hermione Granger, punches a boy and says, "Boy, that felt good."

"Girls in general are evidencing a new assertiveness and physicality that goes far beyond criminal assault," Mr. Garbarino writes. "It is evident in their participation in sports, in their open sensuality, in their enjoyment of 'normal' aggression that boys have long enjoyed in rough-and-tumble play, and in the feeling of confidence that comes with physical prowess and power."

But criminologists largely dismiss Mr. Garbarino's book, and others like it, as simplistic and alarmist. The 15 members of the Girls Study Group, including such prominent researchers as Meda Chesney-Lind of the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Jody Miller of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, suggest more complex factors are at work. The Girls Study Group says the reason arrests are up is probably that more people in authority are paying attention. In schools, fights among girls are more likely to end up with someone arrested than in the past. The bottom line, the study group says, is that violence among girls does not seem to be as widespread as it has been portrayed.

Ms. Zahn, 60, said that when she was a 16-year-old student in Lorain, Ohio, a friend got into a "knock-down, drag-out fight" with another girl. "I saw it," she says. "But that was never reported to anyone. I don't even know if the principal knew about it. Now we have zero tolerance in the schools."

But Cindy Ness isn't convinced.

In Philadelphia, girls said to her they fought all the time to protect themselves or their reputations. What's more, many took pride in their viciousness and in "not fighting like a girl."

One told her, "I punched her in the face and then I banged her head against the ground. I only stopped 'cause someone pulled me off her." Others said a girl with a knife will always go for the other girl's face to disfigure her, whereas boys will stab to kill. "This way she gonna see herself in the mirror every day and remember what I did to her," said one of the girls, named Lakeesha.

The fights often came home and ended up involving mothers, aunts and sisters, as in the brawl on Crucible Street in Pittsburgh on Jan. 8. On one ride-along with police, Ms. Ness saw 30 women and girls in a fight that police had to break up three times before they finally made arrests.

But was that kind of behavior happening in 30 years ago? "No one can say for sure," she says. "But it's been going on for a long time in the African-American community."

Excerpt from Pittsburgh Post Gazette

January 28, 2007

By Torsten Ove

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