Doubts arise over surge in girl fights

 

Expert points to media-led ‘panic'

 

Jeff Wiehe

 

The Journal Gazette (Fort Wayne, IN)

 

December 28, 2008

 

http://www.journalgazette.net/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20081228/LOCAL/812280415/1044/LOCAL08

 

One girl called another girl poor, and the fight was on.

 

In an instant they were surrounded by a classroom full of South Side High School classmates.

 

One girl pulled hair from the other’s head. Two teachers who tried to pull them apart were punched and kicked in the melee, and desks were strewn across the room.

 

A Fort Wayne police report detailing the Dec. 3 fight reads much like the script for a growing number of videos found on Web sites – the same videos that pop up on national news shows depicting teenage girls viciously fighting in school hallways, backyards, streets and

restrooms.

 

The fight videos, some experts assert, wrongly paint teen girls as more violent than in the past. Statistics show they may be less violent.

 

Arrests of girls charged with simple battery, the common count in a fight, have increased nationally in the past decade.

 

At the same time, however, there has been a nationwide drop in arrests for girls charged with violent crimes such as aggravated assault.

 

It’s only that teenage fights are more widely seen and school administrators are more apt to act when fights occur that’s causing the perception of teen girls as more violent, experts say.

 

“We’ve had a media-led moral panic from this,” said Meda Chesney-Lind, professor of women’s studies at the University of Hawaii at Monoa and contributor to U.S. Department of Justice research on juvenile delinquency. “This has been a man-bites-dog story.”

 

Numbers put together by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, an arm of the Department of Justice, show between 1997 and 2007 there was an 18 percent increase in girls younger than 18 accused of simple assault.

 

Arrests of juvenile girls accused of more violent crimes dropped by 12 percent during the same time, making researchers such as Chesney-Lind, who helped collect the data for the Department of Justice, question whether it’s just policy changes that have led to the increase in

arrests involving girls fighting.

 

“Girl fights that have always occurred are being criminalized,” she said.

 

Locally, Fort Wayne Community Schools has tracked battery cases in all of the district’s schools since 2004, but the numbers don’t show a clear trend.

 

The 2004-05 school year saw only 22 cases of battery involving girls in high schools, according to district numbers.

 

That jumped to 67 cases the following year, but school spokeswoman Krista Stockman said it was around that time when new training to better track fighting was put in place for teachers and workers at the schools.

 

“It probably gave us more accurate numbers,” said Stockman, adding that whether an arrest is made or police are summoned in the aftermath of a school fight is decided on a case-by-case basis.

 

Arrests by Fort Wayne police of girls between the ages of 13 and 17 accused of simple assault jump around much like the district’s numbers, showing no clear trend.

 

Through October, police arrested 23 girls in that age range accused of simple assault. Last year, police arrested 34, up from the 26 arrests in 2006.

 

Included in those arrests, though, are fights involving family members. Such fights would be labeled a domestic situation, and mandatory arrests in domestic crimes might be contributing to the rise in simple-assault charges.

 

“With juveniles we see, it’s more family-oriented,” Allen County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Mike McAlexander said. “I don’t know if we’ve had any trending change when it comes to juvenile females being violent.”

 

The topic of girl violence garnered nationwide attention in April when eight Florida teen girls were charged criminally after they filmed themselves beating another 16-year-old girl.

 

The teens threatened to post the video on the popular Web site YouTube.com, according to reports.

 

Shortly thereafter, another video made national news. This one showed a group of Indiana girls ages 12 to 14 battering one of their middle school classmates, a beating authorities later said might have been inspired by the Florida video.

 

Chesney-Lind and others believe it’s the accessibility of these videos that contributes to the perception of an increase in violence in girls.

 

“Girls have probably fought like that before,” said Melissa Sickmund of the National Center for Juvenile Justice. “You just didn’t know about (these fights.) It’s not like girls never did these things before.”

 

Still, other school experts believe there is at least anecdotal evidence girls have become more aggressive.

 

“I think that in the past two decades, we’ve seen an increase in female aggression and violence,” said Ken Trump, a school security consultant based in Cleveland who has worked with various school systems throughout the country, including Fort Wayne Community Schools.

 

“The role of the female has expanded in violence from what it was 10 to 20 years ago,” Trump said. “It can be intense, and its severity cannot be underestimated.”

 

Before becoming a consultant, Trump worked in Cleveland schools regularly.

 

“The good number of my injuries in the ’80s and ’90s, when I did get more injuries, tended to come from girl fights than boy fights,” he said. “They could be vicious.”