Not ‘sugar and spice’ any more

In an increasingly violent society, educators see rise of aggression among female students

Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2005

There used to be a time when girls fought with words, over words.

Those times, educators say, have changed.

‘‘We’re going from typical girl fights, as in, ‘She said something mean to me in third grade, so I’m gonna fight her in high school,” said Montgomery Blair High School Principal Phillip Gainous. ‘‘We don’t see a lot of that. Now I’m seeing what I haven’t seen in a long time, which is aggressive bullying.”

Just recently, Gainous said, three seniors who aren’t normally troublemakers took money from a ninth-grade girl. They didn’t hit her, he said, but they did intimidate and scare her.

‘‘I think what they did was a heinous act,” he said, adding a few similar incidents have occurred this year. ‘‘I’m calling it strong-armed robbery.”

Blair hosts an after-school program specifically targeting at-risk youth who might turn to gangs, Gainous said. And every time officials meet about that program, the same question arises: ‘‘What are we doing for the girls? We’ve got to do something for the girls.”

Aggression:How it can escalate

The evening turned sour Sept. 23 as a fight between two groups of high school girls escalated after a football game at James Hubert Blake High School, and resulted in the stabbing death of 15-year-old Kanisha Neal of Rockville, a freshman at Rockville High School.

County police said the two groups met after the game in the parking lot to continue an earlier dispute, which involved someone spitting on one of the girls. A 15-year-old Sherwood student from Olney was arrested and accused of fatally stabbing Neal. She has been held at the Alfred D. Noyes Children’s Center in Rockville.

Female aggression on the rise?
*In 2003, 5 percent of girls reported missing at least one day of school during a 30-day period due to safety concerns and 8 percent reported being in a physical fight at least once during the previous 12 months. Black and Hispanic girls were more likely than white girls to report missing school because of safety concerns and for having been in a physical fight.
*Seven percent of girls have been the targets of bullying on school property.
*Young women account for one in four arrests in young people.
*In 2000, 430,000 girls under age 18 were arrested—28 percent of the juvenile arrests that year.
*Many girls who come into contact with the juvenile justice system first do so as a result of a status offense like truancy or possessing alcohol.
*Young women represent 17 percent of all incarcerated juveniles.
Source: Girls Incorporated, a national nonprofit that offers educational programs for young women, many of them geared toward at-risk girls.
‘‘It was a difficult time because it wasn’t something that could have been prevented that night,” said Maggie Whall, Blake’s PTSA president. ‘‘It could have been prevented in the schools beforehand. People knew something was going to happen—kids talk. So why wasn’t it reported beforehand? What kind of message are we sending to our kids that it’s not good to tell on your friend” if they’re going to do something wrong, she said.

An incident like that is extreme, but demonstrative in the shift toward increased aggression some girls display toward each other, educators say.

When girls are aggressive, fights don’t always escalate to physical violence, but when girls do fight physically, their fights are often worse than disputes between their male peers, Northwood High School Principal Henry Johnson said.

When boys fight, they tend to ‘‘get a few licks in,” then be pulled away from each other by friends or administrators, then get over it, Johnson said. But when girls fight, it often takes greater measures to break up the dispute, and the young women often carry a grudge for days or weeks after, Johnson observed. ‘‘They don’t let it drop as much as boys do.”

When girls bully, or fight, they often use psychological measures, said Mary Beth Waits, principal at Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School, citing instant messenging or e-mail intimidation as new forms of bullying. However, she added, physical intimidation among the young women has also increased.

Society has become more fragmented, Waits said, attributing that to an increase in female aggression. It used to be that when a child misbehaved, many people might tell the parents — and they might do some disciplining of their own. ‘‘I don’t think that tight bond in society exists now.”

Additionally, Waits said, the concept of being ladylike isn’t there anymore, and could also contribute to girls being more physically aggressive than they used to be.

‘‘Now it’s, ‘You took my man. You made me mad and now we’re gonna fight,’ ” Waits said.

In addition to battles over boys, Waits said young women also fight over what someone might have said about them.

‘‘At the middle school level, there’s a whole lot of talking just to talk,” she said. ‘‘It’s like a big game of telephone.”

It’s difficult, she said, because the behavior stems from wanting to fit in socially. A girl might think that by saying something negative about someone else, she’ll get to be a part of the ‘‘in crowd.”

‘‘They’re so desperate to be a part of the herd,” Waits said. ‘‘They don’t want to be perceived as a punk or afraid. It’s very hard. They don’t have the self-confidence.”

Self-confidence, or lack thereof, does seem to affect girls’—as well as boys’—behavior, Whall said. Youths with low self-esteem sometimes may find it harder to walk away from conflict.

Girls with higher self-esteem are less likely to engage in bullying and aggressive behavior, Johnson said, and girls who do bully tend to gravitate toward each other.

And if those girls fight, schools take measures to address the problem. At Northwood, students who have conflicts undergo mediation. If the conflicts continue, their parents are also brought in — and the students can’t come back to school until their parents come with them. If disputes still continue, the students are sent to a mediator. However, Johnson said, ‘‘Usually the parents kind of shut the whole thing off.”

At Blair, Gainous said he has no tolerance for bullying or aggressive behavior. When the seniors stole the ninth-grader’s money, he recommended expulsion.

‘‘Some people thought that was too harsh,” he said. ‘‘I didn’t. What if you were on the receiving end of it and made to feel so powerless?”

Fighting aggression

Educators agree the best way to circumvent female bullying and aggressive behavior is to make it clear that such behavior won’t be tolerated, and educators need to instruct students on how to handle conflicts.

‘‘We always, always, always try to teach them what’s the best way to deal with the situation,” Johnson said, adding he tries to help his students deal with the root of their problems.

Gainous said Blair’s most recent PTSA meeting focused on school violence. Parents broke down into groups and talked about different aspects of violence, including bullying and girl-on-girl aggression.

Parents realize bullying and aggression, as well as violence at school, are issues that aren’t entirely the schools’ problem, Whall said. In fact, she said, at an upcoming Blake PTSA meeting, Bill Bond, a former principal of a high school in Kentucky where a ninth-grade student shot three other students to death, will speak about violence in the schools and what parents can do.

‘‘I think the responsibility starts at home. I don’t think the responsibility lies entirely with the school system and it’s certainly not an issue of security,” Whall said.

However, she said, Blake offers a conflict⁄resolution program to help students address their issues, and she believes that program is effective. That program is a way to teach students what is socially appropriate, and Whall said it’s also important to teach students in middle and elementary school about appropriate behavior.

Middle school students are often emotional and impulsive, and often have a harder time walking away from a conflict, Waits said. Therefore, it’s up to educators to help those students understand their decision-making process and realize that instead of fighting, they can walk away or talk to a teacher or counselor.

‘‘I try to say to them, ‘If your friend comes and tells you a girl said something about you, is she really your friend?’” Waits said. ‘‘... She hurt you, so you spread this story.”

Waits talks with her students about how scenarios like that can escalate into fights, and she’s also talked with them about the recent stabbing at Blake.

‘‘I ask them, ‘How do these things happen? How do we sit and let them happen?’” she said. ‘‘... It makes them consider what I’m saying.”

Gainous also talks with his students about their behavior and what won’t be tolerated.

‘‘I got on the PA system and let students know that I have zero tolerance for bullying and if they’re caught bullying a student, I’m going to give them the maximum punishment,” he said. ‘‘... I just can’t stand it. ... How can they come to school and be engaged if they’re fearful?”