The War on Catfights

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Kira is a quiet kid. Sometimes she weaves purple extensions into her braids to match her grape-colored lip gloss–a getup that projects her independence of mind. She’s 17 now, but even at 15 she was big for her age. The boy was smaller, and to hear Kira tell it, she was just trying to shoo him away like a gnat. It was a hot, boring day a couple of summers ago, and she was hanging out near a handball court by her house in the Rosedale section of Queens. She knew the boy from the neighborhood, and asked if she could borrow his ball. He walked up to her, too close, and said yes–if she’d give him “favors,” teen-speak for oral sex. He touched her. She pushed him away and said forget it. But when she walked off, he was right behind, nagging and hitting her in her back. She grabbed him by the shoulders, shook him and tossed him away. He fell.

Kira was back home minutes later when the boy’s mother arrived, furious, screaming about taking her son to the hospital. Someone called the cops. They came and slapped Kira with a litany of charges–felony and misdemeanor assault, unlawful imprisonment and more. She went to trial and listened in frustration as the boy denied bugging her for sex or touching her, and as his mother described the five stitches he needed for his ear. In the end, Kira was found guilty of third-degree assault–a misdemeanor.

Not long ago, a playground tussle like the one she and the boy got into most likely would have been settled informally, by parents, neighbors, and maybe the cop on the beat. Today, Kira is a girl on probation with a criminal record.

She’s hardly alone. In the past decade, throughout the country and in New York City as well, increasing proportions of girls have been arrested and charged with crimes after getting into tiffs with friends, schoolmates and adults.

This upswing is happening even as juvenile crime rates overall have plummeted, for both boys and girls. Serious violence like homicide, rape, robbery and assault with weapons has gone down dramatically. The crime that has been rising is what used to be considered garden-variety kid fighting: smacking, shoving and–mostly among girls–hair pulling. These “simple assaults” tend to leave bruises, cuts and black eyes, and they are misdemeanors. Such cases are now streaming into the courts–and girls are increasingly among the defendants.

In 1981, girls made up about 28 percent of those arrested nationwide for simple assault. Sixteen years later, the ratio had risen to 40 percent. In New York, statistics have also skyrocketed. The number of girls arrested for misdemeanor assaults has quadrupled over the past decade, surging from 93 in 1993 to 410 in 2002–even as felony assaults by girls have declined. In 1993, misdemeanors accounted for slightly less than one-fifth of assault arrests of girls in New York City. In 2002, the last year for which figures are available, misdemeanors comprised over three-fifths of the total.

It’s easy to conclude that girls are fighting more now than they used to. After all, in these hard-edged times, young females are getting more aggressive, right?

Wrong, say researchers who’ve looked at a highly respected survey that asks kids, rather than cops and courts, what’s going on in their lives. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey is distributed in schools nationwide. It tallies students’ responses to questions about many things they may have experienced recently, including violence. According to the survey, the proportion of high-school-aged girls who said they’d been in fights in the past year dropped by almost a third during the last decade, from 34 percent in 1991 to 24 percent in 2001, the last year for which figures are available. The deterrent effect of increased law enforcement can’t in itself explain such a huge drop.

Sociologist Mike Males, a senior research fellow at the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, studied emergency room visits and hospital admissions in that city due to fight-related injuries. Males found that, from 1991 to 2001, hospital visits for girls involved in fights dropped despite the skyrocketing rate of arrests for assault among this population.

The situation locally is no different, say experts on kids and justice. “I’ve worked in this system for a long time,” says Jacqueline Deane, co-director of the Juvenile Rights Clinic at New York University. “I don’t think girls are more violent today than they were 10 years ago.”

Even so, statistics and a handful of high-profile cases have hyped the impression that today’s teen girls are ferocious Jezebels who roam the streets itching for a fight. The panic is not color blind. Meda Chesney-Lind, a University of Hawaii criminologist who studies girls and violence, has pointed out that “bad girl” media images almost always depict gun-toting adolescents from minority groups–usually African Americans or Latinas.

What’s going on? If girls are no more violent than they ever were, why are so many more being charged with assault? Answering that question requires wading through policing policies and juvenile justice procedure, where fuzzy, shifting concepts like girlhood and violence run up against the hard line of rap sheets and time behind bars.

These days, girls don’t have to leave home to get into trouble with the law. Since the early 1990s, police and courts have been using criminal sanctions to punish adolescents who get into fights with family members.

A generation ago, it was not uncommon for police to come upon a knock-down-drag-out session and suggest merely that the assailant take a walk around the block and chill out. The person urged to take the stroll was usually male–a man who had battered a woman. But by the 1970s, feminists nationwide were organizing to outlaw this indifference. As a result, Congress passed the federal Violence Against Women Act, in 1994, making it mandatory for cops to arrest someone when responding to a report of domestic violence.

But a provision of the law, little noticed at the time, has had far reaching consequences: The legislation includes in its definition of domestic violence altercations between any two people related by blood, no matter what their gender or age. As a result of the new law, versions of which were also adopted by most states, including New York, cops must take into custody a child who starts a fight at home. What’s more, since 1997 police in New York State have been required to identify and arrest the “primary aggressor” in a domestic violence incident–even when it’s hard to determine who that is.

The result, says Alisa Del Tufo, co-director of CONNECT, Inc., a citywide domestic violence prevention program, is that police often arrest both parties in a fight because “they don’t want to determine who started it. They want a judge to decide.” Or police try to identify the perpetrator, but make a mistake.

Tracy has been through all that. Recently, she got kicked out of a youth job training program in New York City for bruising another girl’s face during a fight on a stairwell. But that’s just the most recent in a history of altercations, which started at her home in Florida. It had long been filled with conflict. “I was always fighting with my stepfather,” Tracy recalls. “He was beating me, leaving marks, but it always got turned around on me.”

One morning when her stepfather started arguing with her, “I said something smart and he hit me,” she remembers. “It was like punches, really hard.” But when the police arrived, they arrested Tracy, and she was charged with assault for hitting her mother (which she admits having done before, but not this time). She landed in a detention center. Tracy’s mother sent her to New England to stay with her father, even though she had never lived with him. That didn’t work out, either. After one particularly rough night, during which she’d screamed at her father, her stepmother called her “a slut and a ho.” Tracy responded by scrawling “fuck you” on the family couch. She was charged with malicious destruction of the upholstery, and assault for making verbal threats. She was locked up for a month, and then had her case transferred to New York, where she is staying with relatives in a crowded apartment. If the stairwell incident is any indication, she’s still having problems with aggression.

Cookies, Barbie dolls–these are the kinds of items girls have thrown at parents, and for which they were arrested over the past few years. Before the Violence Against Women Act took effect, such aggression might have been deemed a “status offense”–a form of misbehavior, like truancy, running away or disobeying parents, that is considered antisocial for children but would not be a crime for adults. In New York State, parents whose children commit status offenses–including fighting with family members–can go to court and petition for “Persons in Need of Supervision,” or PINS, status.

PINS kids are managed by the municipal probation department. They can be sent to counseling, foster families or group homes, but they are not classified as criminals. Many states have a similar special legal status for unruly children, designed to keep them from being thought of as delinquents and carrying a police record into adulthood. Even so, there’s a tendency in the juvenile justice system today to bypass the PINS option. Chesney-Lind calls it a “relabeling of status offenses to violent offenses, especially around family assault.”

The New York Police Department does not collect data on exactly how many of the misdemeanor assault charges against girls arise out of domestic situations. But Mary Haviland, co-director of CONNECT, estimates that in East Harlem, where for the last six years her agency has been working with the 25th Precinct, 10 to 20 percent of domestic violence arrests involve people who are related but not spouses or domestic partners. In up to half of the cases, girls and women are arrested.

In many of these scenarios, the kids were victims for years, but then got taller and beefier. “Some girls have been abused all their lives,” says Marlee Ford. She is an attorney and Soros Justice Postgraduate Fellow who works with the Bronx Defenders–a legal services organization for poor people–to develop programs to keep kids from being incarcerated. As they grow older, Ford says, these girls “finally get to an age where they can hit back. And they get locked up.”

Girls like Kira, who fight other teens in the neighborhood, also seem to be getting arrested in increasing numbers, according to Lawrence Siry, supervising delinquency attorney of the Legal Aid Society’s Juvenile Rights Division in the Bronx. “We had a couple of cases recently where two teenaged girls got into a fight, and one was charged with third-degree assault but said the other girl started it. I think that in the past several years there are more of these she-said-she-said cases that are now being taken to the precinct where earlier they would have been resolved between families.”

In public schools, too, spats are turning into crimes. Nationally, the trend took off after 1994, when the federal government passed the Gun-Free Schools Act, mandating 12-month expulsion for possessing a firearm at school, and referral of the offending child to the criminal or juvenile justice system. Imposing mandatory punishment–not just for weapons possession but also for other misdeeds such as smoking and fighting–was dubbed “zero tolerance,” and such policies soon became common in school districts across the country.

In December, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, under political pressure from the United Federation of Teachers and his presumed rival in next year’s mayoral elections, Council Speaker Gifford Miller, announced an ambitious new “school safety plan.” It puts an unprecedented law enforcement presence in schools that have high crime stats–not just teams of additional police officers, but probation officers to oversee kids who are already under court supervision. The mayor’s plan focuses on getting disruptive students removed from schools and placed in special new schools and detention centers.

While both the mayor and Miller have invoked the term “zero tolerance,” no one is talking–yet–about the phenomenon of arrests in New York City public schools. Until now, students who get into fights have had the right to a hearing before they are expelled, says Nancy Ginsburg, coordinator of Legal Aid’s Juvenile Offender department in Manhattan. Further, she says, “the superintendent has a lot of discretion” about whether or not to kick a child out of school.

But Ginsburg and others working in education and children’s legal services say that even before the mayor’s plan, there were heavy pressures on administrators to get unruly students out–in particular, the No Child Left Behind Act and other school reform initiatives focusing on raising test scores.

It’s no surprise: Kids with behavior problems tend to have more academic problems, too, than those who don’t get into fights. Troublemakers can also disrupt academic progress for other students. Arresting them has been one way to speed their removal from a school–and to improve its academic standing.

Some high schools have special staff whose job is to help prevent violent conflicts. But once incidents happen, the people in charge are school safety officers–members of the NYPD who in some precincts are under orders from superiors to arrest students who get into fights. Whether or not school deans like this policy, Ginsburg and others say, they have no choice but to allow the arrests.

Cory Feldman (who is sister of City Limits Senior Editor Cassi Feldman) worked with the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice for six months last year; she taught safety officers and deans at two high schools how to use positive reinforcement to maintain order. Feldman says she witnessed many fights among girls. “Boys tended to plan their fights, to talk about them beforehand and then have them after school,” she remembers. “But the girls would just snap, right at school.” How these incidents were handled, Feldman says, typically depended on what interventions were available on a given day and at a given place. “One school had an on-site mediation person to deal with girls who fight,” Feldman says, and girls who went through mediation were not charged with a crime. “But on days when the mediation person wasn’t there, the kids would get arrested.”

Though no data is available, it’s likely that arrests are going up, say advocates. (The NYPD did not respond to requests for school arrest statistics by press time.) “The whole environment at the Department of Education has changed,” says Ginsburg. “Most of what kids are being disciplined for are things that in the past would have been dealt with by school personnel, like guidance counselors.”

New York City public schools, however, are seriously understaffed these days when it comes to guidance counselors. The American School Counselor Association recommends that each counselor have a caseload of no more than 250 students. Yet the United Federation of Teachers says that the average New York City guidance counselor has a caseload of about 400 students. Because of the shortage, Ginsburg says, “making an arrest is easier” than providing counseling.

Probation Officer Jacqueline Garcia sees girls who’ve thrown books at teachers, stolen trinkets, fought friends. Each week, she meets with a group of these female teen offenders. She has 90 of them in her caseload.

Despite her best efforts, Garcia can provide only piecemeal assistance. She visits girls’ homes regularly, for instance, but if they would benefit from further education or counseling, she generally sends them out on their own to find it, armed with little but a list of agency names, addresses and phone numbers. And many of the girls do need help. Once they’re convicted of a crime, they often find it hard to stay out of the criminal justice system.

A strikingly curvaceous 17-year-old with large brown eyes, Lisa seems more mature than most of the other girls as she sits with the younger of her two sons in his stroller and recounts her involvement with the juvenile justice system. She’s doing two years of probation for stealing a pack of batteries from a K-mart. But she wouldn’t have received such a harsh sentence for such a petty crime had she not already been in the juvenile justice system–beginning with a fight.

Lisa was first arrested at age 13 and accused of being in a group of girls who jumped another girl. Though later investigation revealed that she hadn’t been at the scene of the crime, the fighting girls were her friends, and their victim thought Lisa was part of the fray. Before the investigation cleared her, she landed in detention for skipping court dates. The case was later dismissed, but by then, Lisa had started cutting school. She was in foster care at the time–her father is locked up for selling crack, and her mother gave up custody long ago. The court put Lisa in a new foster family. She began stealing little things, including the batteries. And she got pregnant.

Girls, it’s clear have lots of matters to deal with that boys generally don’t. Besides having babies, they’re also more likely to be sexually abused and have mental health problems, social workers say. Girls who assault others are almost assuredly first victims themselves.

That’s why some girls’ advocates are proponents of “alternative to incarceration” programs: intensive after-school sessions. They have been found to lower teens’ chances of recidivism, and such programs cost as little as $18,000 a year. That’s a huge bargain compared to the $90,000-to-$130,000 annual price tag for putting a teen in detention.

Two alternative-to-incarceration programs in New York deal exclusively with girls. One, GirlRising, a project of the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services, works with most of its clients five days a week. Girls go to their own middle schools or high schools, then come to the program’s downtown Manhattan office for art therapy and classes in dance, photography and creative writing. They make crafts like jewelry, and learn how to market and sell their wares. Through intensive case management, those who need it get drug abuse counseling, as well as medical and mental-health treatment. They go on retreats upstate, where they are encouraged to open up to each other about their problems. They get regular visits from grad students at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Policy, who mentor the girls in career planning. And when they make progress towards goals they’ve set for themselves, GirlRising clients stand before a microphone and congratulate each other with a “rite of passage” ceremony attended by family and friends.

All this helps girls learn to trust other girls and themselves, says Javiel Vega, who is case management director for CASES programs that work with delinquent young people. Once girls develop trust, Vega says, they start wanting to control their lives and identify choices about how to act.

Programs like GirlRising exist in a few places outside of New York. Maryland’s Department of Juvenile Justice, for instance, started a girls-only program in Baltimore in the early 1990s. In Baltimore, more than 300 girls a year–virtually every young female arrested in the city–enter the program, and it keeps all but two or three in the community and out of detention, according to Marian Daniels, program manager for Maryland’s Department of Juvenile Services.

In contrast, only a few dozen of the hundreds of girls arrested in New York City each year go into alternative programs. That’s because very few exist, and the ones that do are tiny. GirlRising, for instance, currently serves only 16 girls.

Legal Aid lawyer Siry wishes these programs weren’t so small. But he also questions why the number of girls arrested for misdemeanor assault is growing in the first place. “In general these days,” he says, “we seem to have zero tolerance everywhere.” When kids’ conflicts get criminalized, Siry says, “some of it has to do with race, some with economics. That’s been true for a while with boys. But now it’s moving into the realm of young women.” It’s a world full of Lisas, Tracys and Kiras, with their lip gloss, their handballs–and now, their criminal records.

names of girls have been changed

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