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Violent crimes by girls rising, but the reasons why remain unclear

Megan Twohey

The 14-year-old from Milwaukee sits slumped in a plastic chair in a windowless room at Wisconsin's prison for juvenile girls. With a face absent of emotion, she cocks her head and recounts the time she picked up a bicycle handlebar and began to beat a girl in her neighborhood. She was 8 and annoyed that the girl shared her name.

“I didn't care. I didn't feel anything. My mind was someplace else,” said the girl, who fought regularly until she was arrested for theft and sent to the prison in Union Grove.

“I'll fight anyone,” she said.

Her attitude has become increasingly typical, say juvenile justice workers, educators and sociologists who are alarmed at the rise of girl violence. Violent crime by boys is more frequent and usually grabs more attention, but violent crime by girls has risen more dramatically in recent decades, according to statistics. Overall arrests of girls in Wisconsin in 2002 were 57% higher than in 1986, while arrests for assault were up 102% – a total of 1,647 cases. For boys in the same period, overall arrests were up 25%, while assault cases were up 49%.

“There's more fighting among girls,” said Michael Malmstadt, a judge in Milwaukee County's Children's Court who has worked on juvenile cases for nearly 30 years. “The most prevalent offenses are assault-related disorderly conduct or some sort of battery.”

What's behind the violence among girls is not clear. Some attribute it to the rise of violence in pop culture and a distortion of the movement to empower women. Others say girls have always fought, and that what's changed is the way law enforcement handles them. What is more clear is that the juvenile justice system is not equipped to provide effective treatment to girls who are being arrested for violent crimes. Absent in Wisconsin and across the country are court programs that address female violence. “We have a crisis in the juvenile justice system,” said Meda Chesney-Lind, a professor in women's studies at the University of Hawaii, who has written books on female violence. “We're arresting all these girls, but we're not doing anything to deal with their issues.”

Nationwide problem Nationwide, the rate of arrests of girls for violent crimes more than doubled between 1987 and 1994. The rate for boys rose during that time as well, but not as substantially. After peaking in the mid-1990s, both rates have since declined, as has the adult crime rate. But the decline rate for girls in Wisconsin is less than half that for boys. The violent crime arrest rate for juvenile girls nationwide remains more than 50% above the 1980 rate. As many in Wisconsin see it, girl violence is still on the rise.
“We have seen seven fights this past school year, and six involved females,” said Jim Linstroth, coordinator of Mack Achievement Center, which provides alternative education for middle and high school students in Racine. He gave an interview on a day in May when a female student had tried to bite off a boy's ear.

“I'm noticing more aggressiveness, more violence in my female students,” said Nola Starling-Ratliff, who has served 10 years as principal of Racine's Horlick High School. One fight at Horlick this year involved a 15-year-old pregnant student. She was jumped at the end of the school year by a group of girls from a neighboring high school who thought her uppity. During the fight, the group yelled about killing her baby. Despite being pregnant, the girl planned to retaliate, said Sammy Rangel, a counselor of at-risk youths who escorted the girl home for three days.

“She said, 'I'm not scared of those (expletive). I'll fight all of them.' ”

The scenario came as no surprise to Rangel. Many girl fights spring from petty issues, such as jealousy and gossip, Rangel and others said. Compared with boys, girls fight more viciously, refusing to break apart even after school officials or police show up. Afterward, they cling to grudges, they said.

“Boys can fight and be friends the next day,” said 15-year-old Aimee Linn, who is entering her sophomore year at Riverside High School in Milwaukee. Linn said she doesn't fight but has witnessed many at school.

“With girls, it's more emotional,” Linn said. “They will fight again or hold a grudge.”

Kathy Malone, division manager for delinquency and court services in Milwaukee County's Department of Health and Human Services, agreed.

“It's no longer unusual to see two girls come in, one as the victim, the other as the offender, then see them come in two months later with the roles reversed,” Malone said.
Asserting their power Research shows violent girls often come from troubled homes. Many have been victims of abuse. But broken homes and abuse are nothing new. What's changed, some say, is girls' attitudes.

“It's being flipped around. Girls are getting sick of being treated badly,” said 14-year-old Cierra Cunningham of Racine, who remembers her aunt giving her a talk about the importance of being tough after a male relative hit her in the jaw. Cierra was among the girls interviewed for this article who said they viewed the rise of female violence as a sign of women's equality with men. That's the message in the music of some female rappers and a growing number of violent movies, video games and TV shows. Movies that celebrate violent women have become more popular in recent years, paving the way for “Tomb Raider” and “Kill Bill.”

In the eyes of many adults, violent girls have missed the point of the campaign for women's equality.

“We've told girls: Stand up for yourself, you're in charge, don't be a victim,” said Dan Baran, director of Professional Services Group, an organization that runs youth programs for delinquent and troubled kids in Kenosha, Milwaukee and Racine counties. But the girls are confusing being assertive with being aggressive.”

Tougher arrest policies But girl violence might not be changing as much as the statistics or anecdotes suggest, Chesney-Lind said. Recent changes to domestic-violence laws across the country require police to arrest everyone involved in a fight. In many states, that means children as well adults, girls as well as boys.

“It's more of a rediscovery, girl violence,” Chesney-Lind said. “Girls have always done more fighting than stereotypes acknowledge.”

In the late 1980s, Wisconsin passed a law that requires police to arrest all adults involved in a violent domestic dispute. The law doesn't mention children, but evidence suggests police have increased arrests of children who are involved in these situations. Most of the girls who land in Milwaukee County Children's Court for assault were arrested for domestic violence, Malmstadt said. Treatment programs In Wisconsin, most juvenile offenders, male and female alike, don't end up behind bars. Instead, they're placed in county-run programs that provide residential or after-school treatment and supervision.

Among the most successful in Milwaukee County is a residential treatment program for boys with histories of chronic criminal behavior. They receive anger management training and other therapy. Another program combines strict supervision of boys caught carrying guns with group sessions on victim awareness and drug and alcohol issues. These programs aren't as effective for girls, whose violence often springs from emotional wounds rather than a lack of accountability, Malone said. She hopes to soon launch therapeutic programs for girls that would focus on relationships and abuse.

“We're not meeting the needs of these girls,” Malone said.

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