Violent Crime Committed by Girls Is on the Increase

From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 6, 2001 (Washington) -- Although boys are often thought of as the culprits behind school violence, an increasing number of juvenile girls are acting out and getting arrested for violent crimes.

Overall, violence in schools has decreased in recent years. But at the same time, the level of violence has been increasing in girls. And according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, girls now account for 25% of juveniles arrested for violent crimes, Deborah Prothrow-Stith, MD, of Harvard University, said at a U.S. Department of Education conference on Monday.

This number is even more alarming considering that two decades ago girls accounted for almost none of the violent crimes committed by juveniles.

Dan Iser, Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities advisor with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, says that although his state does not keep individual statistics on girls and boys, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest an increase in violence committed by girls. In one disturbing case, a dispute between two girls ended with one girl hanging the other while other students of both sexes looked on, Iser tells WebMD.

Prothrow-Stith attributes the increase in girls to the same factors that induce violence in boys. These include living in homes in which guns are accessible, witnessing or being a victim of domestic violence, poverty, bullying, and the abuse of alcohol and other drugs.

An increase in movies depicting women superheroes solving problems with violence, such as Tomb Raider, led Prothrow-Stith to speculate whether "we've now socialized girls to solve problems violently as we have done with boys.

"It's not that girls are hurt more than they have been in the past, its that they've added [violence] to their responses," she said, pointing out that women's responses to trauma or violence used to be limited to running away, using drugs, or becoming prostitutes.

The solution to this problem is not more punishment but forgiveness, Prothrow-Stith said. Society has adopted a culture of "meanness" where "power equals violence," and that has even crept into the teaching profession, she said. "Sometimes we're mean when we need to be nice. Sometimes we punish when we need to forgive."

Not any one program will reduce the violence, Prothrow-Stith tells WebMD. In Boston, where violent crime among youth plunged dramatically, it was due to a culmination of antiviolence programs in schools and in the communities, including clergy taking to the streets at 2 in the morning and interacting with youth, she says.

Bill Modzeleski, director of the safe and drug-free schools program at the U.S. Department of Education, agrees that successfully reducing youth violence involves many different approaches. Without the help of communities and families, antiviolence programs in schools alone will not make a dent in the problem, he tells WebMD.

The increase in girls' crimes in the context of decreasing violent crimes overall suggests that antiviolence campaigns may not be as effective in girls as in boys. But Modzeleski, who notes that the violent prevention programs run by the department of education do not give special consideration to either sex, insists that there is no need for programs that may approach girls and boys differently.

The solution, as he sees it, involves comprehensive programs that focus on changing the culture of schools, not on gender differences.