Bad Girls

News & Politics

The world watched with horror as South Carolina officials pulled a car with two little boys strapped inside out of a lake that fall of 1994.

The older son died with his hands pressed against the window, the news reported, perhaps trying to escape, perhaps screaming for his mother.

But what was more horrifying than the image was that it was Susan Smith, their mother, who buckled her babies in and pushed her car into the water.

Fast forward six years, after the murders of 13 teenagers by two boys at Columbine High School, after Jonesboro where in 1998 four girls and a teacher were killed and nine students and another teacher were wounded at an Arkansas middle school by male classmates.

But an incident this April signaled a growing trend: Boys aren't always pulling the trigger. Last month, three first-grade girls were suspended from a Lake Station, Ind. school for plotting to kill classmates.

Shocking? After all, even nursery rhymes teach that girls are made of "sugar and spice and everything nice." And conventional wisdom holds that boys -- gun-toting bad boys -- are the ones who commit disturbing, violent crimes.

But research demonstrates that the number of girls and young women who commit violent crimes is rising dramatically. Researchers split on what triggered that rise, or if that increase is even real. Experts connect the reported surge in violent girls to everything from strict arrest laws to the evening news to physical and sexual abuse in young women.

Decoding the Numbers

Though juvenile crime as an overall rate shows a downturn, crimes committed by young women are on the rise. In 1997, girls constituted 26 percent of the juvenile arrests made in the year, compared with 22 percent in 1986, according to the Justice Department report. Girls make up the fastest growing segment of the juvenile and criminal justice system: Between 1993 and 1997, the increases in arrests were greater for girls than boys in almost every category, the report said.

And the media reflected this trend. Traditionally, local television news rarely aired stories that showed female perpetrators. But now that seems to be changing.

In a survey by Colorado's Rocky Mountain Media Watch, 100 nighttime television news programs in 50 markets appeared to reflect the rising incidence of females committing crimes. According to the survey, in 1995, only 5 percent of those who were identified as perpetrators of murder, rape, or assault on the news were female.

But by 1998, that figure doubled to 10 percent, the study shows. So are news outlets choosing to feature more crimes by women or are they simply reflecting national trends?

Paul Klite, director of Rocky Mountain Media Watch, says the answer is unclear.

In fact, nothing is clear except the simple fact that the number of reported female crimes is on the rise, says Melissa Sickmund, a senior research associate at the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh, Penn. She says that rising numbers could simply reflect a change in how youth crime is reported.

"Keep in mind," she said, "that it might not be the behavior, but how the system reacts to the behavior." In the past, law enforcement officials may have turned a cheek from ladies in fist fights or judges may have dismissed cases to spare a woman a stain on her reputation, Sickmund said.

Tougher Laws

But that kind of leniency rarely happens anymore. Laws stemming largely from tough domestic violence legislation call for mandatory arrests in most cases. For example, with mandatory arrest laws, a woman or man who retaliates in a domestic dispute can be arrested alongside the aggressor. And this "get tough" legislation sparked even stricter laws, so that anyone who does anything even slightly aggressive, such as hair-pulling, can be arrested for assault.

These tougher arrest laws, Strickland says, could be an explanation for why the numbers appear to be rising.

The fact that girls commit violent acts is not new, says Alexander Koppleman, a spokesman from Girls Incorporated, a national advocacy group. He called the statistical rise "illusory."

"There always has been a fair amount of violent behavior found in the female population," he said.

The real change may simply be that the media, as Klite's survey suggests, is reporting more about women who commit crimes, says Jan Stanton, director of development at Girls Incorporated. Plus, she says, police and social service workers are now more apt to investigate a woman as a perpetrator of a crime.

"Girls are exposed to the same amount of violence as boys and are responding the same ways as boys," she added. "It's only now that people are thinking logically and suspecting women can commit crimes." In the past, no one wanted to acknowledge that a woman had the ability to commit crimes, she said.

Copy-Cat Crime?

Another theory is that violent girls are actually taking the lead from boys.

Sickmund says, "There is no reason to believe that girls are doing stuff because they see boys are doing stuff and got some attention from it."

But, according to Mediascope, a nonprofit research and policy organization in Studio City, Calif., evidence suggests otherwise. According to their research, juveniles do commit crimes by mimicking violence they see around them.

The group cites a list of "copy-cat crime" sparked by violence viewed in the media: Last May, a 7-year-old Texas boy killed his 3-year-old brother after imitating a professional wrestling move he saw on television. In June 1997, Timothy McVeigh told investigators he was inspired to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building after watching Red Dawn.

Some of last year's wave of bomb threats that flooded the country's schools after the Columbine incident also may have been copycat crimes, the group's research shows.

And Stephanie Carbone, a research manager at Mediascope, says girls are just as likely to engage in copy-cat behavior as boys. "The likelihood of some kind of effect happening depends on the portrayal of violence in the media," she says, "for boys or girls."

Mediascope representatives are quick to point out that most violent acts are committed only by those with a predisposition to heinous behavior. But the group's research also indicates that violence seen in the media leaves three imprints on the public: desensitization to violence, fear of being victimized, and imitation of aggressive behavior.

Klite maintains that news images and stories move people -- boys and girls -- and that the press could stop projecting violent images, if it chose.

"The country has a fascination with things that bleed," he says. "And [news organizations] feed on that frenzy to make a profit."

He doesn't suggest that reporters stop printing or airing stories about vicious crimes, he adds, only that they take more consideration into selecting them.

"[Violence] is a public health issue," Klite says. "And the newsmakers must be more responsible in their reporting."

Violence as Public Health

Stanton agrees that violence is a public health issue. Research compiled by Girls Incorporated points to many factors that lead women to commit crimes: difficulty in school, substance abuse, sexual or physical abuse, and a history of being a victim of violence.

One study by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency showed that 68 percent of incarcerated women from three states shared a single, common thread in their history: All had been victims of violence.

In a four-year study of 1,000 seventh- and eighth-graders, researchers for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency found that those who had witnessed violence at home were far more likely to commit violent acts than those girls who did not.

That cycle, Stanton says, must be broken. First, society must acknowledge not only that women are victims of crime, but can commit crime as well. Second, young girls must be taught that they have a voice -- they can say no to someone who has hurt them. They need to tell a figure of authority that they have been hurt, she said. Girls also must be taught empowering skills, from math to sports to communication. Finally, whole families must seek help, she added.

Furthermore, there are only a few programs nationwide that offer services targeting female juvenile offenders, according to a Justice Department report. The California legislature passed a bill to create the first statewide juvenile female offender intervention program in 1998, though it went unsigned by then governor, Republican Pete Wilson. The bill can still be re-introduced, and if passed, could serve as a model nationwide.

"The juvenile justice system has never looked at young women in a holistic way," says 23-year-old Lateefah Simon of the Center for Young Women's Development. "When people think of juvenile hall, they think of bad boys. But we're talking about a girl struggling, and there are not many resources for her."

This article originally appeared on Shewire. Bernice Yeung contributed to this story. Erika Hobbs is a reporter in the Philadelphia region.

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