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Volume 16, Number 1
January/February 2000

‘Every Friday was Fight Day’

Researchers look at why girls fight—and how to help them stop


Geoffrey Canada, director of Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families in New York City, holds his hands out in front of his chest, patting the air tentatively. "This is how people approached a fight between girls," he says. "They would say, 'Come on, you all.' They just wouldn't intervene."

Canada describes how teachers he supervised when he was principal of an inner-city Boston high school seemed hesitant and confused when approaching fights between girls. "I spent particular time training men and women to break up a fight between girls," he says. "Even after we went through it, they wouldn't do it. They just wouldn't do it."

Canada could have been describing the reaction of society at large to girls' violence, say experts in juvenile justice and violence-prevention programs. U.S. Department of Justice statistics show that girls account for a significantly larger proportion of violent juvenile offenses than they did 25 years ago. Yet there has been almost no increase in the number of studies and services devoted to girls and violence.

Instead, researchers say, people are typically confused by and reluctant to confront girls' violence. "We either deny it exists entirely, or we demonize it," says Meda Chesney-Lind, a leading researcher on criminally violent adolescent girls. What research there is on female adolescent violence focuses almost exclusively on girls in the criminal justice system, leaving questions about school-based violence largely unanswered.

Disturbing Trends

In 1973, girls accounted for 15 percent of adolescents arrested for aggravated assault, the most serious violent offense other than murder or rape. In 1998, that figure had risen to 22 percent—this despite a nationwide drop in crime rates, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics.

There are other indicators that girls' violence is increasing. In a recent article entitled "Girls and Violence," Chesney-Lind, who is with the Social Science Research Institute at the University of Hawaii, writes that 34 percent of girls surveyed for a 1995 U.S Department of Health study reported fighting at least once during the previous year. Nine percent had been in four or more fights during the year. A second national study done that same year by the Centers for Disease Control reported nearly identical results.

A few researchers are paying more attention to violence involving girls, though their output is dwarfed by research on boys. When the staff of the Harvard School of Public Health's (HSPH) Violence Prevention Programs decided to design a program in 1998 for inner-city girls, they found a dearth of data and materials, says Marci Feldman, a project coordinator at HSPH. "There's a scarcity of information about girls and violence. Almost all studies and programs have been geared to boys."

Without a comprehensive understanding of which girls engage in violence, what kinds of violent acts they commit, and the circumstances that lead them to violence, community leaders find it hard to address the problem effectively.

Soon after New York State began trying violent 13- to 15-year-old children as adults in criminal court, Judge Michael Corriero of the Supreme Court, New York County, created a special courtroom to determine which youngsters, if any, should be sent to community-based programs instead of prison.

Judge Corriero says he has seen a sharp increase over the last two years in the number of girls in his courtroom. Because of the lack of research on girls' violence and possible solutions, he doesn't always know what to do with them. "They are a dilemma. I really think we have to develop an understanding about the differences between a young woman's adolescence and a young man's," he says. "I kind of struggle along trying to figure out ways of handling it."

Violence in Schools

Lishone Bowsky's story may suggest a wider, unreported world of violence, one that especially affects schoolkids. Bowsky, now 19, remembers a weekly ritual just outside the front door of her middle school in Brooklyn, NY. "Every Friday was fight day," she says. By unwritten rule, the girls evened up that week's scores. "You couldn't leave the building on Friday without fighting. Any little thing that came up during the week was settled on Friday."

Dr. Sibylle Artz, director of the School of Child and Youth Care at the University of Victoria, works on a Canadian team studying school-based violence in Vancouver. The team's study covers 5,400 students in 16 schools and includes surveys of students, teachers, and parents; an ethnography; and evaluations of prevention programs. In every phase of the project, Artz and her colleagues include an investigation of gender differences. The team began the project in 1995 after the Vancouver Island School District asked for help with what appeared to be an alarming increase in the number of girls involved in all forms of violence.

"Girls were being cornered by other girls in the bathroom, turned upside down, and dunked in the toilet," Artz says. "There was one incident where a girl was ambushed at a party, and her hair was set on fire. It was difficult for us to establish whether there was really an increase in incidents, but it felt like a crisis to the district because of the type of violence involved."

Locked into Conventional Roles

In order to develop a comprehensive portrait of the "life-worlds" of violent girls, Artz did an ethnographic study of six girls who had been identified as fighters by counselors, classmates, and the girls themselves. The girls were white, aged 13 to 16, and lived in two-parent homes in which both parents worked, mostly at blue-collar jobs. Only one of the six lived with a stepfather; mothers and fathers of the others had been married for between 16 and 26 years. None of the families was affluent, but each had enough income to own a home and two cars.

When she began interviewing, Artz was startled by each girl's limited understanding of women's opportunities. "The thing I least expected was how locked into stereotypical notions of gender these girls were," Artz said. "They really had trouble envisioning any other way to be." The girls had traditional aspirations for themselves. They planned to marry and have children soon, despite the family turmoil they experienced day-to-day. None had plans or goals for education beyond high school.

Conventional gender roles were upheld in these girls' homes despite the fact that all of the mothers held jobs outside the home. The mothers depicted themselves as powerless and invisible. "One woman talked about getting up each morning, fighting with her husband for a sense of power, losing, and trying again the next day," Artz says. "Another found herself not talking much, and what she did with that time instead was clean." Artz says her team's surveys of children and parents found a strong correlation between stereotypical notions of gender and aggressive attitudes.

The Abuse Factor

Another factor linked the girls' experiences: they were victims of violence at the hands of family members or friends. All six of the girls reported they had been screamed at, pushed, and/or punched by their fathers. Four had been sexually abused by older male relatives (other than their fathers) or family friends. The study concluded that the primary determinant of violent behavior was the child herself being the victim of an assault.

Victimization is a key factor in many studies of incarcerated women and adolescent girls. In a 1999 study of girls in the southern California juvenile justice system, Leslie Acoca of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency found that 92 percent of the girls she interviewed had been the victim of some form of emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse. An earlier study by Acoca of adult female prisoners showed that over two-thirds of the study participants had been exposed to violence as children. The University of Hawaii's Chesney-Lind also has found that girl gangmembers reported very high levels of physical abuse.

The Trouble with Teasing

Research suggests that less dramatic events than abuse can also spark violence in girls. Many students experience daily teasing about grooming and appearance. At a time when kids are turning to violence to settle even petty disputes, such harassment can be dangerous, says Geoffrey Canada, though he cautions that his observations are anecdotal.

"The toughest girls I knew were the least [well-]kept girls. Other girls would start picking on them when they were six or seven, and it was clear that these children couldn't do anything about it. They couldn't fix their own hair. You could tell there was no parent at home who was taking care of them, making sure their stuff was washed."

The pain of handling harsh comments about clothes and appearance was also a theme in the lives of the girls Sibylle Artz studied. "It all came down to your fingernails, your hair, how thin you were, your rings, your clothes," says Artz.

Lishone Bowsky, who stopped fighting only recently, seconded that observation: "I was teased a lot because I was skinny and tall. Kids are mean. When they would tease me, I would fight them."

Some girls who are teased about their appearance are simply too busy to get ready for school, says Marci Feldman of the HSPH. Feldman initiated a small violence-prevention program for girls at Brighton (MA) High School in 1998. The after-school program targeted 10 junior and senior girls identified by school officials as physically aggressive. Feldman and co-researcher Anne Bishop, the high school's health coordinator, launched the program with a personal survey in which the girls revealed that they were shouldering substantial wage-earning and childcare responsibilities at home.

"They had to take an average of three buses to get to school," says Feldman. "They got up at 5 o'clock in the morning. They had to share one bathroom with an average of three other people. They were in charge of siblings after school and on weekends, and they all had jobs."

Canada says the girls in his school differed from boys in that the girls rarely committed random acts of bullying or violence. "They were not bullies who would just go over and pick on kids, take their stuff," he recalls. "If you insulted them, if you teased them, if you disrespected them, they would beat you up." Girls' fights also resulted in many more injuries than boys' because adults failed to react as swiftly.

Adds Sibylle Artz: "Boys and girls act out differently. That has to do with socialization. Boys are more likely to engage in more random violence. Girls base their anger on personal relationships. Boys tend to make a statement that will draw attention to them. The girls are interested in making a statement, but they're also interested in revenge."

Hopeful Signs

If girls act violently for different reasons than boys, the good news is that they may respond better to antiviolence programs, according to researchers. For instance, Artz and her colleagues working with the Vancouver Island School District measured pre- and post-program attitudes among boys and girls in three middle schools. They found that after children had participated in their school's antiviolence programs, boys were less likely than girls to adopt the programs' antiviolence messages.

Asked to explain the results, Artz says, "The girls actually like the process exercises. They seemed to gravitate to social activism. They flocked to take on leadership roles."

A second study, released in 1999 by the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP), found that girls responded better than boys to a popular antiviolence program in New York City. The study evaluated the impact of the Resolving Conflicts Creatively Program, which teaches children to mediate disputes, on 5,000 children in 15 New York City public schools. According to Joshua Brown, a research associate at the NCCP, "There was still a strong pattern of results for boys, just not as strong as it was for girls."

Of course, girls can only respond positively to offers of help if it is available. In community centers and schools, Canada says violence prevention still focuses on boys. "Girls are on the fringes," he adds. Hopefully, it won't take still higher rates of girls' violence to stem that trend.

Peggy J. Farber is an education reporter based in New York City.

For Further Information

For Further Information

J. Aber, J. Brown, and C.Henrich. Teaching Conflict Resolution: An Effective School-Based Approach to Violence Prevention. New York: National Center for Children in Poverty, 1999.

L. Acoca. "Investing in Girls: A 21st-Century Strategy." Juvenile Justice 6, no. 1 (October 1999): 3-13.

S. Artz. "Where Have All the School Girls Gone? Violent Girls in the School Yard." Child and Youth Care Forum 27, no. 2 (April 1998): 77-109.

S. Artz. "What, So What, Then What? The Gender Gap in School-Based Violence and Its Implications for Child and Youth Care Practice." Child And Youth Care Forum 26, no. 4 (August 1997): 291-303.

M. Chesney-Lind. "Girls and Violence: An Overview," in Youth Violence: Prevention, Intervention, and Social Policy, ed. D.C. Flannery and C.R. Huff. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, 1998

E. Poe-Yamagata and J. Butts. Female Offenders in the Juvenile Justice System. Pittsburgh: National Center for Juvenile Justice, 1996.

F. Weiss, H. Nicholson, and M. Cretella. Prevention and Parity: Girls in Juvenile Justice. New York: Girls Incorporated, 1996; 212-698-3700.