Girl troubles: have girls gone bad?

North Brook, Ill. — On May 4, 2003, dozens of teens gathered at a field in a well-to-do suburb of Chicago for an annual game of touch football. The seniors had invited juniors for what was described as an initiation into their senior year. But they never got to play football. Instead, the older players punched, pushed, and kicked the younger players. The seniors splattered garbage, paint, pig intestines, fish guts, and animal feces over the juniors. When it was all over, five teens were hospitalized; one had a broken ankle and another received ten stitches for a head injury.

Boys will be boys? Not this time. The perpetrators and victims were all girls.

Jordan Movish, a classmate of the girls at Glenbrook North High School, witnessed the hazing. “I was incomplete awe…. To see girls doing that to other girls; it was inhumane. It was terrible,” he told NBC News.

In the following days, a videotape of the incident aired on all the major television networks, shocking viewers around the country. Fifteen girls were arrested and charged with battery. The media and public related the incident to a growing in trend in female youth crime and violence.

According to recent studies, more and more girls are being charged with crimes and sent to juvenile detention centers. The arrest rate for girls between the ages of 10 and 17 is growing fast, up 40 percent over the past 20 years, with more girls than ever before being charged with violent crimes. In contrast, boys commit the vast majority of juvenile crime–about 75 percent–but their arrest rate has declined in recent years.

What’s going on? Have girls gone wild? Why has female juvenile crime increased so dramatically? The answer varies depending on whom you ask. Psychologists and experts in criminal justice have a variety of theories to explain the alarming arrest rate.

Numbers Nut the Whole Story

Meda Chesney-Lind, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Hawaii and author of several studies about female delinquents, doesn’t think girls are necessarily more violent than they were 20 years ago. “Girls have always been aggressive,” she told National Public Radio (NPR). “But we didn’t arrest them … Our focus has shifted.”

Chesney-Lind explained that girls are arrested now for crimes that in the past would have been unreported, ignored by authorities, or referred to youth counselors and social workers.

According to a study by the American Bar Association (ABA), an association of lawyers, stricter domestic-violence laws have contributed to a rise in the arrest rate of girls for assault because much female juvenile crime takes place in the home rather than on the street, as it does for boys. According to the Department of Justice, between 1990 and 1999, the number of assault arrests of girls increased by 85 percent, from 24,062 in 1990 to 44,524 in 1999. In comparison, boys’ assault arrests increased 22 percent, from 91,437 in 1990 to 111,264 in 1999.

“Thirty years ago, if someone was attacking a family member and the police showed up, [police officers] didn’t want to get involved. They didn’t want to invade someone’s privacy, and they’d walk away. That is much less true now. And a lot of states have compulsory arrests laws; [so] a police officer is not allowed to walk away. [from a domestic dispute],” said Jeffrey Butts of the Urban Institute.

Schools’ zero-tolerance policies and “get-tough” attitudes toward teen crime also contribute to the rising number of arrests of girls, which some experts say aren’t being enforced equally among boys and girls. The ABA study noted that 29 percent of juvenile girls were arrested for minor, nonviolent offenses such as curfew and probation violations, running away, and public disorder, compared with 19 percent of juvenile boys.

Gary Lacey, a county prosecutor in Nebraska, attributes part of the rise in young female crime to girls’ having less supervision than, they did in the past. “[Parents] are letting girls do things that in the past they would only let boys do. They let their daughter have more freedom to go to the shopping malls, to go driving around with their friends, to go to other people’s houses where there may or may not be supervision. And that gives girls an opportunity to act like boys,” Lacey told NPR.

Girls Will Be Girls

Whatever the reason for the rise in female juvenile crime, experts say the juvenile justice system isn’t prepared to handle the influx of girls. Not enough facilities and programs are in place for girls, and the ones that do exist often don’t address the specific needs of female delinquents.

“Girls are too often placed in settings and institutions that are neither designed for nor proven effective in their rehabilitation,” said Martha Barnett, former president of the ABA.

“The juvenile justice system has a lot of problems,” said Francine Sherman, of the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project at Boston College law school. “The interest in girls now and the concern about the girls is because the numbers are so staggering.”

CONSIDER THIS … Do you think girls are being treated unfairly by police and the courts? Can you think of any other ways girls and boys might be treated differently?

COPYRIGHT 2003 Weekly Reader Corp.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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