A teenage girl cuts off a car outside Mesa’s Skyline High School, and a passenger gives her the finger. A month later, he tosses a dinner roll at the girl and her sister. She throws a drink across the cafeteria — hitting his girlfriend in the eye. And it’s on.
The minor argument erupts into a lunchtime brawl that leaves at least two girls injured. The boy tells police that one stabbed a stiletto heel at his girlfriend’s face, arm and chest. Witnesses say the boy’s girlfriend banged a girl’s head against a table.
The late May fight could be a fluke, high school tempers flaring out of control — after all, two of the teens have emotional difficulties and learning disorders, the school tells police. Or, counselors say, it could be part of a trend: Angrier and more violent girls. The national rate of aggravated assault arrests among girls has doubled in the past two decades, filling female juvenile facilities, according to the U.S. Justice Department. And from 1980 to 2003, girls 10 to 17 years old arrested specifically for simple assaults increased by 269 percent compared with 102 percent among boys.
The number of girls 17 years old and younger in Maricopa County’s juvenile justice system increased 65 percent between 1990 and 2003, from 278,471 in 1990 to 460,938 in 2003. Statewide, girls in the juvenile justice system increased from 491,189 in 1990 to 741,771 in 2003.
Historically, school counselors have combatted mostly just name-calling and bullying among girls, while boys have been the ones more likely to tumble in the dirt. Now the girls throw punches, too, a trend some counselors and educators attribute to pop culture — violent movies, music lyrics and video games featuring tough girls.
"Girlfight" by Brooke Valentine — a song about girls taking off their earrings, putting on Vaseline and fighting over a man — has topped the charts recently. Similar videos show beautiful girls with muscular arms ready to fight over harsh words or pride.
"I think that pop culture has really encouraged girl deviant behavior," said Kathy Horlacher, prevention coordinator for the Gilbert Unified School District. "I think it encourages girls to do more extreme behavior than they used to."
In the Skyline incident, each girl claims to be the victim — not the instigator. Parents insisted police be involved and an investigation was opened. The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office is reviewing whether to file charges against the four.
Skyline principal Denise Griffin declined to comment about the fight, but said she hasn’t noticed an increase in girl fights.
"I don’t think that’s necessarily the case," she said. "I think it just depends on the situation."
One parent disagrees.
"This is too much violence in school," said Michael Gunter, whose daughters, Brittany, 16, and Ashley, 17, were involved in the lunchroom brawl. He said Brittany "tells us all the other girls are always in the hallways trying to pick fights with other people. It’s happening because there isn’t enough supervision in school."
Denise Cholfin, 17, said the Gunter sisters had teased her. Her arm and chest bear light scars from where she says she was jabbed with a stiletto heel. Cholfin said she was in the hospital more than 12 hours with a mild concussion after slipping repeatedly on the cafeteria floor, slick with thrown Gatorade.
"I just want peace in all the schools. Everybody just don’t fight," Cholfin said.
But the sisters insist they hardly knew Cholfin and say she attacked Brittany — who was taken to the hospital for a cut on her head — in retribution for throwing the drink and arguing with Cholfin’s boyfriend, Matthew Drobitsky, 18. Ashley jumped in to stop the fight, her parents said.
Girl violence is more common in Scottsdale, too, said Russ Warrington, a specialist with Scottsdale Prevention Institute who works with teens in the Scottsdale Unified School District.
"With the teens I work with, it’s over really shallow stuff," Warrington said. "They tell me, ‘I’m mad at so-and-so.’ Or, ‘She said something about my friend.’ "
The institute has created an anti-bully program that teaches girls to seek an adult to help clear up differences instead of fighting, said specialist Cathy Rosick. Many of the girls who bully are just responding to other pressures that need to be resolved, she said.
It’s not just about teenagers, either, added institute specialist Kathy Yakaitis. She’s seen an increase in violence among girls in kindergarten and first grade.
"Girls are pushing each other off slides, pushing each other down in the bathroom, tripping each other in line," she said.
Sgt. Jim Schweisthal, who oversees school resource officers in west Mesa, said girls are more likely now to carry weapons or respond to namecalling with violence.
"They’re more apt, instead of to talk or even gossip, to step up and even threaten each other, more so than I had seen earlier on," Schweisthal said. "It escalates a little more quickly. I do feel girls feel a stronger need to defend themselves. It used to be just boys felt they had to defend their honor."
Boys still rack up the majority of assault and weapons offenses in the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections. But as male offenses declined, from 156 actions against other persons in 1999 to 108 in 2004, female offenses remained steady with 24 girls incarcerated for similar offenses during the past three years, down from 29 in 1999 and up from 21 in 2001.
Department spokeswoman Patti Cordova said that in general there are more girls entering the system for more violent crime.
"We’re seeing more juvenile girls committing serious offenses," she said.
Cynthia Avena, 13, an eighth-grader at Chandler’s Andersen Junior High School, gets good grades, but has had to overcome an urge to fight, she said.
Turning away from her reputation as a tough girl, Cynthia is running for school senate and planning to become a language arts teacher after college. That’s after having as many as 20 fights over boys or name-calling. Often, she said, fights are arranged through text messages, set for after school.
She still has the urge to strike back or teach girls not to call her names or flirt with her boyfriend. But she’s learning to talk to those girls — and even befriend them in one case. "I don’t think it’s OK," Cynthia said of fighting. "I just think . . . if she gets her butt kicked then she’ll leave me alone.
"There was going to be a girl fight the other day. I was going to jump in . . . but I held myself back."
Tips for teen girls
• Learn to avoid girls who are involved in verbal conflicts with other girls, or who write things about other girls on the Internet.
• Don’t leave taunting phone or online messages and don’t mention other girls’ boyfriends in messages because conflict may arise if messages are shared.
• Don’t argue but instead speak calmly with someone who seems crazy, angry or assaultive. The best response is a neutral statement, like, "I’m not sure we really have the whole story yet, and I don’t have any conflict with you."
• Don’t rise to the same emotional pitch as the other person.
• Know someone — preferably a peer mediator or school counselor — who can help mediate a conflict peacefully.
• Speak out about starting a peer mediation program at your school and try to be a leader as school peacemaker.
• Don’t gossip. Seek other expressive outlets instead: Running, swimming, tennis, music, yoga, poetry, art.
• For parents: Don’t dismiss frustration girls may have about behavior they describe around them, but rather validate and praise them for finding peaceful resolutions.
SOURCE: Jerry Sander, New York City social worker, school counselor and author of "Permission Slips"