PULLMAN – While law enforcement agencies are continuing to report a rising trend in violent crime arrests of girls aged 12 to 17.
A study by a WSU sociologist and her research associate shows there has been little actual change in the rate at which young females commit all forms of violent crime in the U.S. for nearly two decades.
Research by WSU Assistant Professor Jennifer Schwartz and Pennsylvania State University Professor Darrell Steffensmeier concludes reported increases in violent crime arrests of teenaged girls in recent years are more likely a result of changing law enforcement policies and attitudes than an indication of an escalation in aggressive or violent behaviors on the part of adolescent females.
“As our society has grown increasingly concerned about the potential for violence among adolescents of both sexes, there has been a tendency on the part of law enforcement, parents, teachers, and social workers to treat to all forms of physical or verbal aggression by girls more seriously than they might have in the past,” she said.
While such strategies have boosted the number of arrests of girls, Schwartz said they may be a less appropriate response to acts of minor violence by girls than to those by boys, who remain largely responsible for all forms of serious violence.
Some observers have attributed the shift in policies and social tolerance toward all forms of youth violence to the highly publicized shootings of a large number of students by two male students at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999.
Schwartz said the shift in social tolerance towards youth violence actually began prior to Columbine, however, with the development by police and school officials of pro-active strategies focused on early recognition and response to more minor forms of violence under the premise that such strategies will deter more serious forms of violence in the future.
The growing number of girls arrested for violent crimes has been cited by some academics and a large segment of the news media as an indication of a narrowing of what historically has been a relatively consistent and significant gap between the number of violent acts committed by boys and the number committed by girls.
“One of the most consistent and robust findings in criminology is that, for nearly every category of crime, females commit much less crime and delinquency than males and this gender gap in offending is particularly notable for more serious and violent offenses,” Schwartz said. “In recent years, however, the extent and character of this gender difference has increasingly been called into question by statistics and media reports suggesting greater involvement of women – and particularly girls – in the criminal justice system.”
While tragic incidents like the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings seem to justify increasingly punitive strategies for dealing with minor forms of violence by young girls, Schwartz said arrests of girls for yelling at a teacher, throwing a plate at a parent or sibling during an argument, or fighting with another girl over a boy are far less publicized.
“These are things girls have always done that don’t typically escalate to more serious violence,” she said. “But people now are less willing to take that risk.”
As examples of the increasing trend in arresting adolescent females for less serious forms of violence, Schwartz cited a number of actual incidents, including a case three years ago in which an eighth grade girl in a Colorado middle school lunchroom was charged with assault and disturbing the peace for hitting a male student who pulled up her dress. In another incident in 2005, she said a 14-year-old Florida girl was arrested at school and charged with battery for pouring chocolate milk over the head of a boy she believed had “talked about her.”
Schwartz said suggestions that girls are becoming increasingly violent are based primarily on statistics providedby local law enforcement agencies and compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Notably, such data indicate that between 1980 and 2003 the number of arrests of girls for violent index offenses – homicide, rape,robbery,and aggravated assault –increased by 75.2 percent and arrests of girls for “simple assaults” increased by 318 percent.In contrast, the arrest data shows boys’ arrests actually declined by 11.3 percent for index violent offenses and increased by a relatively lesser 130.5 percent for simple assault.
In order to test whether such statistical gains in arrests were indicative of changes in the underlying behaviors of girls or a product of recent changes in public sentiment and enforcement policies that elevated the reporting of such behavior, Schwartz and Steffensmeier based their research on self-reported and victim-reported data collected independently of the criminal justice system, including data drawn from “Monitoring the Future,” the “National Crime Victimization Survey,” and the “National Youth Risk Behavior Survey,” all highly regarded nationally representative, longitudinal surveys.
In contrast to findings based solely on arrest data, the two researchers’ analysis of the survey-based data provided empirical evidence that girls’ violence is not rising, nor is the gender gap converging. In fact, their findings also support the work of other researchers suggesting there have been real and continuing declines in the number of assaults by juveniles of both sexes since the mid-1990s, Schwartz said.
Their study tends to raise questions as to whether treating the socially created problem of teen girls’ violence may do more harm than good, she said.
“Girls’ problems deserve more attention, but official attention may not be the best course of action,” Schwartz said. “While this is a question that isn’t addressed directly by our research, I think our findings can be taken to suggest it may be time to consider whether there may be less stigmatizing, less costly approaches to addressing the roots of their problems that work as well or better.