Girls Need Safety, Opportunity, Not More Policing

The bad news about girls just seems to keep coming, particularly if you pay attention to popular media. Girls are going “wild,” girls are “mean” (and certainly meaner than boys), and girls are even getting as violent as boys. Current media coverage of modern girlhood, at least in the United States, is virtually all grim. It is also clear as to the source of the problem — girls are getting more like boys — and that is bad news for girls.

Despite widespread acceptance of these notions, there is considerable evidence that these ideas are incorrect. They also lead to bad social policy, obscure the good news about girls and distance the United States from the global conversation about girls and girlhood.

Let’s start with the media fascination with “mean” girls. The manipulative and damaging characteristics of girls’ social worlds have been the subject of high-profile best-selling books like “Odd Girl Out” and “Queen Bees and Wannabes.” These, in turn, spawned hit movies like “Mean Girls” and a slew of articles, like The New York Times Magazine cover story entitled, “Girls Just Want to Be Mean.”

Notions of “meanness” rely on psychological categories of behaviors that are intended to harm, but are not physical in nature; instead they rely on covert or indirect behaviors like rumor spreading, ignoring or eye rolling. Some scholars have suggested that while boys tend to specialize in physical violence, girls specialize in these more covert forms of aggression, an idea that the media immediately embraced.

However, the literature on relational aggression does not consistently support this notion. For example, University of Georgia researchers randomly selected 745 sixth graders from nine middle schools across six school districts in northeast Georgia. The student participants took computer surveys each spring semester for seven years, from sixth grade to 12th.

Key findings included the following. First, covert and relational aggression is extremely common; 96 percent of the students who participated in the study reported at least one act of relational aggression (meaning, everyone is mean sometimes), and 92.3 percent of boys and 94.3 percent of girls said they’d been the victim of such an attack at one point during the study period. Second, they found that boys admitted to significantly more acts of relational aggression than girls did. And girls were more likely to be victims.

Finally, and of the greatest significance, of the meanest kids (the ones who fell into the “high” relational aggression group), 66.7 percent were boys and 33.3 percent were girls. So, at least according to this study, the problem is mean boys, not girls.

But what about all the evidence in arrest statistics, in media stories featuring menacing images of “gangsta girls” peering over the barrel of a gun and in social media obsessed with the cheerleader beating up other girls? Are girls “going wild” and closing the gender gap with boys in physical aggression or violence?

Since the 1990s, there has been plenty of official evidence that girls were getting arrested for offenses that were not typically associated with female delinquency (like running away from home). Notably, arrests of girls for simple assault, in particular, soared at the end of the last century; one study of court referrals between 1985 and 2002 found a 202 percent increase in girls charged with “person offense cases.”

And even though juvenile arrests have declined in recent years, girls now comprise a far larger percentage of juvenile arrests than they used to. Essentially, girls have gone from about one juvenile arrest in five (in the ’80s), to one juvenile arrest in three (in 2015). Much of this is due to the fact that arrests of boys, particularly for offenses like simple assault, have fallen more sharply than girls’ arrests for the same offense (47.8 percent compared to 39.5 for girls 2006-15).

Juvenile court and correctional data reveal a similar theme. Since 1990, girls’ adjudications for person offenses have increased by 60 percent, now representing 22 percent of all youth adjudicated on such charges. Likewise, the number of girls in custody for a violent crime has also been on the rise. In 1989, 8,512 girls were in detention for a violent offense; 25 years later, that number more than doubled to 17,730.

What about other data on girls’ violence? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has monitored youthful behavior in a national sample of school-age youth in a number of domains (including violence) at regular intervals since the ’90s. Their data show that more than a third (34.4 percent) of girls surveyed in 1991 said they had been in a physical fight in the previous year, and slightly more than half (50.2 percent) of the boys reported fighting. By 2015, though, only 16.5 percent of girls reported being in such a fight, and boys’ violence was also down, with only 28.4 percent saying they had been in a physical fight.

In essence, the data show that girls have always been more violent than their stereotype suggests, but also that girls’ violence, at least by their own accounts, has been decreasing rather dramatically, not increasing.

To further explore these issues about girls’ self-reported violence and likelihood of arrest, two other professors and I used two national self-report data sets to compare self-reported behavior with self-reported arrests in two different time periods (1980 and 2000). This research found that girls who admitted to simple assault in 1980 had about a one-in-four chance of having been charged with a crime, compared to girls in 2000, who had about a three-in-four chance of arrest. Furthermore, black girls in 2000 were nearly seven times more likely as their 1980 counterparts to have been charged with a crime.

In short, while girls had long reported that they were acting out violently, their arrests did not necessarily reflect that reality. Instead, girls’ arrests tended to emphasize petty and status offenses (like running away from home or being “incorrigible”); by the 1990s, that had changed dramatically, as more girls were arrested, particularly for such seemingly “masculine” offenses as simple assault — and this pattern was particularly pronounced among African-American girls. But these shifts are in the behavior of those who police girls, not the girls themselves.

So what is going on? Misguided school policies (like zero tolerance) and relabeling of girls’ fights with their parents as assault have buoyed the arrest numbers, not changes in girls’ behaviors. And again, the impact has been most pronounced among African-American girls. As a result, in 2013, African-American girls were the fastest-growing segment of the juvenile justice population, and they were 20 percent more likely to be detained than white girls.

While the media and policymakers in the U.S. have been fretting about policing girls’ meanness (through misguided anti bullying policies), and demonizing girls, particularly girls of color, for their presumed violence, the global conversation on girls has taken a completely different tack. In 2014, Malala Yousafzai, the youngest recipient (at age 17) of the Nobel Peace Prize, made history.

Malala’s story of triumph over abuse and violence began in 2012, when she survived a bullet fired by a Taliban fighter that caused a massive head injury, and she became an international advocate for girls’ education and peace. She was one of two recipients of the Prize for 2014, sharing it with Kallash Satyarthi, who campaigns for children’s rights in India and has been involved in rescuing trafficked children. They reflect a growing global focus on girls’ rights, especially their right to education and to be safe from abuse, particularly physical abuse, sexual abuse and early marriages.

This international concern about the extensiveness of girls’ victimizations and girls’ rights stands in stark contrast to the discourse on girls in the last 25 years in the United States, where both media and policymakers have been expressing concern (and developed policies) to respond to the growing numbers of “mean,” “bad” and “violent” girls. It is time that the United States joined the rest of the world in advocating for safe childhoods for girls, calling for expanded (and equitable) educational opportunities (building on the impact of Title IX) and offering them the chance for a bright future they deserve.

Meda Chesney-Lind is a professor and the chair of the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She was also recently elected president of the American Society of Criminology; her term begins in 2018.

‘Crown Heights’: Cautionary True Tale of Youth’s Unjust Sentence, Exonerated By Stubborn Friend

“You never know how sacred your freedom is until it’s jeopardized.”

That’s the driving sentiment behind “Crown Heights,” a new film that tells a tale of friendship and perseverance in the face of a miscarriage of justice.

The drama is the story of Colin Warner, an 18-year-old immigrant from Trinidad who was arrested for a 1980 killing in New York that he played no part in. He ended up spending two decades behind bars before being freed — largely due to the efforts of his childhood friend Carl “KC” King, who ran down witnesses and lobbied lawyers to take on Warner’s case.

“This was a guy who grew up in prison,” said the film’s director, Matt Ruskin. “He was an 18-year-old kid when he was charged with a murder he had nothing to do with, and he became an adult in one of the harshest environments imaginable.”  

Warner was released in 2001 and won a $2.7 million settlement from New York authorities for their wrongful prosecution. He now lives quietly near Atlanta with his wife and daughter.

“My case which was so exceptional and strange is you had one person who literally put his life on hold to assist me,” Warner said. “There are not too many people alive like that.”

He’s now a property owner and a landlord, but he says he still struggles to adjust to life as a free man.

“I don’t believe you can imagine what 21 years in prison can do to someone,” he said.

Prison “was more mental than physical … I got to work trying to maintain my sanity in a madhouse, because that’s what prison was.”

When he got out, he said, “My wife had to hold my hand. My friends had to hold my hand the first couple of years I was here.

“I am still getting back into society and I try to keep my life as simple as possible,” he said. He saw a psychiatrist for a while, “but I thought I did not receive what I needed. The person you’re speaking to now was basically put together by himself.”

Lakeith Stanfield and Natalie Paul star in "Crown Heights," the story of an 18-year-old sent to prison for a murder he didn't commit.

Shorter sentence for actual gunman

The killing that put Warner in prison happened in April 1980, in Brooklyn. Warner — played by actor Lakeith Stanfield, from the recent film “Get Out” and the television show “Atlanta” — had a prior arrest for carrying a pistol, and he was mistakenly identified by a witness from a book of mug shots. Police then leaned on other witnesses to match that shaky ID.

Even though detectives confirmed a different person shot the victim, Mario Hamilton, prosecutors kept charges against Warner as an accomplice. Both suspects were tried together and convicted even after a key witness changed his testimony on the stand.

Warner was sentenced to 15 years to life. He was released in 2001 after a judge threw out his convictions. The actual gunman, who was under 18 at the time, got nine years and was paroled in 1989.

It took two years for his case to come to trial — two years in which Warner was held without bail at New York’s lockup on Rikers Island. Knowing he was innocent, Warner struggled to adjust to prison: He spent about four of his first 10 years in solitary confinement. That disciplinary record and his refusal to admit guilt and express remorse for Hamilton’s killing cost him his first shot at parole.

Ruskin said a turning point came with the death of Warner’s grandmother, who had helped raise him in Trinidad.

“He said he realized that time was slipping away, and that life was continuing on, even though his had come to a grinding halt,” the director said. “He became much more active not only in fighting for his freedom, but he made a very conscious decision to be present and live his life wherever he was at that moment, rather than fighting and avoidance and what he said was letting things get away from him.”

Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) faces a life behind bars for a killing he didn't commit in "Crown Heights," based on Warner's real-life story.

Drama based on hard truth

The film is scheduled to hit theaters Aug. 25. Though it is a dramatization of Warner’s story, it draws heavily on source documents and interviews with the participants. For instance, when Warner is convicted — despite a prosecution witness changing his story on the stand and a total lack of physical evidence — the judge says, “Is this verdict true? I don’t pretend to know.” That line came straight from the trial transcripts, Ruskin said.

Both King, played by former NFL defensive back Nnamdi Asomugha, and Warner were involved in shaping the script from the beginning. Ruskin said he recorded dozens of hours of interviews with them about their experiences, and they had several lengthy but less formal conversations during production.

“They had an open invite while we were shooting,” he said. “While I was writing the script, they spent countless hours talking with me about their experiences.”

Warner said he still feels like he has the mark of an ex-convict on him, and he tries to teach his 10-year-old daughter the importance of making good decisions. Nor has he fully escaped tragedy in his new life: His 13-year-old son drowned two years ago on the Fourth of July. He always tries to help people, “because without help, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now.”

Meanwhile, King is still in New York, working as a process server — a job he took to help meet lawyers who could help his friend. Ruskin said King is still trying to help people like Warner, “and there is no shortage of cases that he’s become aware of.”

“He has always continued to do this type of work since Colin’s exoneration,” Ruskin said. 

The killing for which Warner was imprisoned was one of more than 1,800 in New York that year. It was part of a nationwide surge in violence that started in the 1960s and peaked in the 1990s, leaving police, prosecutors and politicians scrambling.

“It was just clearing the cases you had on your desk and doing whatever you had to do to get convictions,” Ruskin said. “On the one hand, it was the height of the crime wave in New York, and I think these people were completely overburdened. On the other hand, this kind of misconduct was completely inexcusable and led to situations like there where you have an innocent kid spending 20 years of his adult life in prison.”

Those pressures also overwhelmed the courts: Warner had a series of public defenders at different hearings before his 1982 trial, “so there was no continuity in his defense until the trial started, Ruskin said. “You had people who weren’t familiar with the details of his case, didn’t believe in his innocence or just weren’t present.”  

Potential return to old policies

Ruskin’s film marks the passage of time with politicians like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, New York Mayor Ed Koch and state Gov. George Pataki vowing to get tough on crime. A generation later, many of their successors have been rethinking those policies, particularly the harsh minimum sentences imposed on drug offenders.

But under the Trump administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has moved to roll back decisions made by his predecessors to de-emphasize nonviolent drug crimes and avoid charges that would expose nonviolent offenders to some of the mandatory minimum terms imposed at the height of the crime wave.

Ruskin said the policies of the past mean there likely are more cases like Warner’s — and going back to them will likely mean more in the future.

“When the focus is on punishment rather than justice, and when you’re looking at statistics rather than the health of a community, I think it’s inevitable that there will be casualties of an aggressive and inhumane system,” he said.

From She To He: A Transgender Journey of Self-Discovery

Connor Gillis

Just don't use pronouns in public. That's what C.G. usually tells his mother before they go out. Just call me by my nickname.

G. is not obsessed with grammar, but being born a female now living as a male, makes common pronouns like “he” and “she” a complicated issue. The transgender distinction is one that even the most shunned of the gay and lesbian community will often agree has the hardest plight of the oft-embattled LGBT community.

“Being transgender confuses people; it’s harder for people to grasp,” insists G., a 24-year-old from Atlanta, who prefers to be referred to by male pronouns. “People can more easily grasp the concept of gay or lesbian – being sexually attracted to someone of the same sex – but transgender is often an abstract concept to many people.”

Em Elliott, a field organizer for Georgia Equality and the Georgia Safe Schools Coalition -- Atlanta-based non-profit organizations that played an integral role in helping get critical school bullying legislation passed in the state Legislature last year -- says popular culture plays a major role.

“Transgender people have a lot more stigma working against them,” she says. “Over the years there’s been a lot more gay and lesbian characters on TV and in movies, but transgender people are rarely shown, and when they are they’re not usually shown in a positive light. People are afraid of it and they don’t want to know more about transgender people.”

Anneliese Singh, a University of Georgia (UGA) researcher who specializes in transgender issues, says gender identity and sexual orientation are often confused.

“Gender identity is how you identify your gender, versus gender expression which is how you express that gender,” she explains.

G.’s story is typical of others who identify as transgender, an estimated 700,000 people in the United States, according to a recent UCLA study. (C.G. requested that only his initials be used.)

G. first noticed an attraction to females at the age of 15, when a close friendship with a female classmate two years older evolved into a romantic attraction.

“I was kind of like, ‘this is pretty interesting and strange; maybe I’m gay,’” recalls G., then living as a female in rural Richmond Hill, Ga., a small town about a 30-minute drive from Savannah.

It didn’t take long for G.’s parents to catch on. When they confronted her about the relationship, he confirmed being romantically linked to the friend. The news didn’t go over well with them, both die-hard military brass living in a small town.

While deep-seeded emotions of anger, resentment and denial were simmering at home among her parents, the predicament at school reached all-out inferno status. Her secret got out and she was unwittingly shoved out of the proverbial closet for all to see. Many LGBT people describe “coming out” to family and friends as an arduous ordeal, but being the first openly lesbian student at her high school in the Deep South was especially agonizing, insists G.

“People would walk by my desk and purposely hit me in the head with books and none of the teachers did anything to stop it,” recalls G. “One time somebody carved the words dyke and faggot into my car door with keys. It was horrible. I was depressed and suicidal all throughout high school.”

G. contends that his experience was just one example of how transgender people are disproportionately victims of discrimination, violence and hate crimes. Young people are particularly vulnerable in schools nationwide, he says.

A 2009 national school climate survey of 7,261 LGBT middle and high school students youth conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a national LGBT advocacy group, supports that view. It found that:

  • 63 percent reported hearing negative remarks about gender expression (such as not acting “masculine enough” or “feminine enough”) frequently or often at school.
  • 61 percent felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation; 40 percent because of how they expressed their gender.
  • 85 percent reported being verbally harassed (e.g., called names or threatened) at school because of their sexual orientation; 64 percent felt it was due to their gender expression.\
  • 40 percent said they were physically harassed at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation; compared to 27 percent because of their gender expression.

Georgia statistics are similar. Of the 175 LGBT student poll respondents, many reported having experienced physical harassment and physical assault:

  • 9 out of 10 reported being physically harassed because of the way they expressed their gender; about 2 in 3 reported being physically assaulted (e.g., punched, kicked or injured with a weapon) because of their sexual orientation.

Singh, the UGA researcher, agrees with G.

“There are considerably less resources available for transgender people in schools and that can make it an especially difficult experience for them,” Singh says. “Fortunately, along with the many challenges they also have a lot of resilience; that resilience keeps them bouncing back. We need to do more in schools to support them.”

It got to a point, G. says, that for safety reasons he arrived at school early and left late in hopes of thwarting further confrontations and harassment.

“I didn’t feel safe,” remembers G. “There was no GSA (gay student alliance) at my school and only one teacher offered any kind of support.”

For these reasons, G. is an ardent supporter of Georgia’s new anti-bullying law passed by the state Legislature in 2010. Starting in August, schools must begin notifying parents when their child is bullied or bullies another. The current policies in local school districts don’t require notification in every case.

Elliot, the field organizer for the non-profits, says the measure is a huge success for Georgia students, particularly those who are LGBT.

“This goes a long way to promote a safe environment in schools,” she says. “This legislation was inspired by the suicide of DeKalb County [Georgia] student Jaheem Herrera, who was relentlessly teased and called gay at his school. That case put a lot of pressure on the state Legislature to address this issue. The bullying policies had not been updated since the 1980s. Jaheem’s ordeal gave us the push that we needed to get it passed.”

The new law:

  • Defines bullying more broadly than before.
  • Requires local school systems to adopt policies on dealing with bullying.
  • Expands the policies to include elementary school students, particularly kindergarten.
  • Requires parents to be notified any time their child is bullied or bullies someone else.
  • Mandates students who bully in grades six through 12 be placed in an alternative school after the third offense.

G. says having such a law in place during his school days could have made a huge difference.

-- continue reading -->

Connor Gillis

Student Files Suit for Being Handcuffed to File Cabinet for Day

A civil rights lawsuit has been filed against the Atlanta Public School system and the Atlanta Police Department by a student who says officers handcuffed him to a file cabinet for the school day, reports The Atlanta Journal Constitution.
The lawsuit says Tony Smith, a former student at Grady High School, was taken by officers and a assistant principal to a small room where he was handcuffed. The suit says Smith did nothing wrong, but only witnessed a student take two dollars from another student’s wallet.
The incident occurred in 2009.
The suit also said the two Atlanta Police officers had been found by the city’s Citizen Review Board earlier to have violated police department procedures. The paper also reported that Police Chief George Turner told the Review Board that the officers violated department policy by leaving Smith handcuffed for an unreasonable amount of time.
Both the Atlanta Police Department and the Atlanta Public Schools declined to comment.

Charity Streetball Tourney Honors Murdered Teen, Raises Scholarship Funds

The unprovoked murder of an Atlanta teen just a few minutes after midnight on New Year’s Eve has inspired the creation of a charity street basketball tour whose next stop is Mt. Zion High School in Jonesboro on January 30.

Murdered teen Reuben Hand. Image courtesy Georgia Daily News.

Fourteen-year old Reuben Hand was on his way home with friends after watching the Peach Drop when he was attacked by a stranger at the Five Points Marta station.  They argued over a cell phone.  Police identified the man as Tommy Christopher Collins, and accused him of stabbing Reuben in the neck.

Reuben is the latest teenager killed in an unprovoked attack in the Atlanta area and community groups are searching for ways to stop the violence.  Neighborhood group R.E.A.D. 25 Literacy Foundation, has developed the Stop the Violence Charity Streetball Tour which aims to encourage social responsibility and nonviolence while it raises funds for a scholarship to help kids choose education over violence.

Tickets are available are $5 in advance online or $10 at the door.  For more information check out our Upcoming Events page.