Academics and Research / Current Issue

All the Rage

Co-author of The Female Offender: Girls, Women and Crime and a nationally recognized expert on issues of gender and delinquency, Lisa Pasko has spent the last two years examining how Colorado’s juvenile justice agencies respond to violent middle school and high school girls. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

At a party in a west Denver neighborhood on Halloween night, the tensions between two teenage girls turned into a full-fledged fight. After the initial violence, one of the girls left the scene, only to return later with three friends. Then, according to The Denver Post, the fight continued, with five sets of fists flying and five pairs of legs thrashing and kicking.

It took the police to break up the fracas, and the two primary “combatants,” as the Post called them, were taken to Denver Health with injuries. One of the girls was subsequently arrested on assault charges, and police hinted that more arrests might be in the offing.

Because they were juveniles, their names were not published. To readers, they were just two faceless girls gone dangerously wild, one of them headed for a juvenile justice system that knows too little about violent girls and not enough about how to help them.

Lisa Pasko, an assistant professor in DU’s Department of Sociology and Criminology, wants to remedy that.

‘It’s pretty functional for them’

Co-author of The Female Offender: Girls, Women and Crime and a nationally recognized expert on issues of gender and delinquency, Pasko has spent the last two years examining how Colorado’s juvenile justice agencies respond to violent middle school and high school girls. Her work, supported by a grant from the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, aims to help professionals working with violent girls better understand—and thus better address—the adolescents and teenagers populating their caseloads.

Her research helps explain why the number of female offenders has grown significantly over recent years and what approaches work best to help them become productive members of society. Her findings also suggest that, across the board, the strategies for dealing with violent girls beg for fine-tuning.

Considering how many girls are crowding the juvenile justice system, the sooner that fine-tuning begins, the better. A 2008 report by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention notes that in the last three decades arrests of girls have increased steadily, even as arrests of boys have decreased.

As recently as 2004, girls accounted for an unprecedented 30 percent of all juvenile arrests nationwide. In 2003, the arrest rate of girls for simple assault was more than triple the rate in 1980, while the arrest rate for aggravated assault nearly doubled.

Although these statistics suggest that violence among girls is up dramatically, Pasko isn’t so sure. “Girls have always been picking fights with one another,” she says. What’s new is that we’re responding to their offenses more aggressively.

That’s especially true in school settings. Once upon a time, before heightened concerns about bullying, gang violence and school shootings, administrators might have responded to a girl fight by calling both parties into the office and mediating. Today, they call the police.

“With zero tolerance, there is no discretion. Our school systems have transformed themselves into a capture-and-release program,” Pasko says, noting that fighting girls are “captured” on camera and “released” to the juvenile justice system. Many of them, she contends, don’t belong there.

If zero-tolerance policies account for some of the increase in arrest statistics, technology also shares top billing. It plays a role in escalating tensions and in documenting their zenith. For example, before the advent of cell phones, schoolgirls taunted one another via passed notes. Chances were good that these missives would be intercepted by an adult prepared to quash mischief. Today, Pasko explains, girls can text fighting words to dozens of people without an adult ever learning about it. With the chances for adult intervention minimized, fights inevitably break out.

Once fights do break out, they often are recorded for posterity by security video systems or cell phone cameras. Should these fights happen on school premises, administrators often have little choice but to summon police.

In many instances, Pasko says, fights could easily have been avoided. After all, where adolescent girls are concerned, violence typically is a desperate, last-resort option.

To illustrate her point—and the violent girl’s quandary—Pasko shares a story from Colorado case files: In one middle school, a seventh-grade girl—let’s call her Julia—was dating the former boyfriend of her former best friend (Sally). Angry and jealous, Sally dispatched text messages far and wide, alerting the community to Julia’s supposedly promiscuous behavior.

The slanderous text messages continued long after the boyfriend had moved on to another girl. Time and again, Julia took the problem to teachers and counselors, who proposed solutions that yielded lackluster results. Mediation didn’t work; face-to-face meetings didn’t work; admonitions and warnings didn’t work. The text messages continued. Finally, Julia asked her mother for advice.

“Her mom told her, ‘Kick her ass,’” Pasko recalls. Which she did. Julia did such a thorough job that she earned a felony assault charge. Later, when her probation officer asked if she regretted her actions, Julia offered an emphatic no. Why should she regret the one tactic that put a stop to the harassment?

“Girls try to avoid physical violence,” Pasko explains. “Then it happens, and it’s pretty functional for them.”

Girl drama

Education and social work professionals could help girls avoid violence if they knew more about how girls come to violence and about how their fights and issues differ from those of their male counterparts, Pasko maintains. As brutal as violence among boys can be, it flares up and de-escalates quickly.

“For boys, violence is often the result of a masculinity challenge. In order to prove yourself as masculine, you have to be ready to fight, or at least not back down from a fight,” Pasko says. The issues generally are straightforward and uncomplicated, making it relatively easy to mediate boy-on-boy conflicts.

In fact, boy violence is often telegraphed in advance, giving adults ample opportunity to intervene. Some may schedule their fights for after school or off campus. As Kristi McCollum, a psychologist with Denver Public Schools (DPS), notes, “boys are much more flat-out upfront about it.”

In her 11 years with DPS, McCollum has counseled a fair number of violent girls. Their fights often grow out of simmering gossip, much of it centering on boys and much of it conducted off the adults’ radar screen.

“The girl drama can go on for days,” McCollum says. “Somebody telling somebody that somebody said something bad about them. It starts with a lot of verbal back-and-forth. Pretty soon you’ve got a big drama and they start screaming in the hallway.”

By the time it gets to that point, several girls may have united against a single peer, McCollum explains. Such scenarios, Pasko says, typically result from a hierarchical power structure in which girls are evaluated by other girls on three primary criteria: whom they are dating, what they look like and how they express their sexuality. A failure to pass muster in “girl world” cuts a girl off from the social networks and relationships associated with a healthy adolescence.

It’s a man’s world

The complexity of girls’ issues makes prevention and intervention tricky. Strategies that often work with boys can backfire with girls. Take peer counseling, a tool thought to foster group cohesiveness.

“That is probably the most humiliating situation for girls,” Pasko says, explaining that girls who get into trouble tend not to trust their peers or value their advice. They are in trouble precisely because they are not functioning well within their peer groups.

What does work, Pasko says, is professional mediation—mediation that takes gender into account by addressing the girls’ needs to talk through issues and air concerns. Because this approach requires time and professional services, it isn’t cheap. And too often, it isn’t the recourse of first resort.

Once they enter the juvenile justice system, violent girls face a world constructed without much thought for their reality or their needs. As Kimberly Bolding, director of youth services at the Colorado Springs-based Women’s Resource Agency, puts it, “Our juvenile justice systems were devised by males, for males, and [are] run by males.”

As a result, Pasko says, males understand the system and know how to function within it. For example, boys tend to have crisp, businesslike relationships with their probation officers. They check in when expected and provide only the minimum information needed to comply with the terms of their sentences. Girls, on the other hand, often see their probation officers as sympathetic friends and mentors. They’ll unwittingly confide in them, letting slip, perhaps, that they skipped school or smoked a joint.

“They provide evidence for their own revocation,” Pasko explains, noting that as a result, girls typically remain on probation twice as long as boys.

In fact, without effective intervention, girls tunnel deeper into the criminal justice system. “Not over major, major crimes,” Bolding says, “but over failures.”

For example, while on probation or serving a sentence, they’re more likely than boys to commit “status offenses,” such as running away from home or violating curfews at group homes. These aren’t crimes, but they are violations that come with significant consequences.

Such counterproductive behavior changes, Bolding and Pasko agree, when girls have access to programs structured with them in mind.

One of the intervention programs Bolding directs, InterCept Too, offers a gender-specific skills curriculum for girls in the juvenile justice system. Many of them have been referred to the program by teen courts.

InterCept Too—whose practices and philosophy feature prominently in Pasko’s research—teaches girls how to channel anger into productive behavior and how to deal with the troubled personal histories they bring with them. Girl offenders are far more likely than boys to have endured sexual abuse, Bolding points out, and that requires special therapies and strategies.

Perhaps most important, InterCept Too shows girls how to build and maintain relationships with other girls and women.

“Most of our girls will tell you, ‘I don’t get along with females. I only get along with guys,’” Bolding says. That’s an immediate indicator that they are headed for additional trouble.

To help them change course, InterCept Too takes the time to model productive female relationships, showing the girls how to share experiences and negotiate differences and conflicts. Were these girls in a more traditional program, one designed for boys, they’d be urged to work off steam on the basketball court.

Although the InterCept Too approach is time-consuming and labor-intensive—and thus expensive—it gets results, Bolding says, pointing to a 20 percent recidivism rate, compared to a 30 percent rate for many other state programs.

As Pasko sees it, the emphasis on female relationships is critical for the long-term prospects of violent girls. That’s a point she emphasizes in her report to the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice. Girls who can maintain a strong tie with at least one female, whether a friend or relative, tend to make healthy and safer choices.

“As long as they have their feet in girl world, they don’t engage in violence as much,” she says.

And investing in their success is important not just for the juvenile justice system but also for society as a whole. After all, she says, “they’re the people who are going to be raising the next generation.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *