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Despite uneasy feeling teen violence is on rise, experts, stats say otherwise


TORONTO (CP) - Witnessing a murder at a birthday party when she was 17 caused Sarah to go on "a rampage."

"After that, anytime anyone pissed me off I would react in a violent way," said the 18-year-old, who can't be identified but lives in the suburb of a southern Ontario city.

Sarah's rampages included assaults on girls for any perceived slight and - along with her pals - threatening people with machetes.

Girls with machetes ... bullying that results in death ... school shootings. These are not crimes of the inner city. They're happening in affluent suburbs north of Toronto, picturesque Victoria and the quiet Mormon community of Taber, Alta. These examples make it appear as though today's teens inhabit a world more violent than what past generations experienced. But statistics and experts don't necessarily agree with the perceived trend.

Numbers from Statistics Canada show youths were charged in 95,185 incidents across Canada in 2003, down from 132,983 incidents a decade earlier. While overall incidents were down, youths charged in homicides went up from 36 in 1993 to 56 in 2003. Robbery also went up from 2,996 in 1993 to 3,127 a decade later.

However these numbers don't include teens charged with assault, which Fred Mathews, director of research and program development at Central Toronto Youth Services, said would probably make up the lion's share of charges against teens.

Mathews said a 10-year comparison isn't enough to tell whether or not violence is actually increasing - instead we need to look at a 20-or 25-year span.

"The Reena Virk case is very exceptional as are the high school shootings, but they get our attention because of how serious they are," said Mathews, referring to the death of the Victoria teen who died in 1997 after being swarmed by other teens.

"Although we did see (school shootings) 20 years ago," he said.

In one of the first school shootings where a disgruntled teen acted out his anger with firearms, Michael Slobodian, in May 1975, shot and killed a teacher and student. He wounded 13 others at Centennial Secondary School in Brampton, Ont., before killing himself.

Mathews also points out that we look at things differently now. Snapping a bra strap used to be filed under "boys will be boys" and now it's sexual harassment. When girls would have it out, it used to be called a "cat fight."

"Teen violence is not really going down, it's moving around," said Marta Weber, a clinical psychologist in California.

"Gangs continue to grow, but at a slower pace because of a lot of anti-gang intervention. But what's interesting is that the gangs have spread from inner cities to the suburbs and something like gangs is now seen in small town and rural settings.

"It's related to the spread of (drugs) into the rural landscape and small towns of the United States and Canada.

"The other issue ... the big news in teen violence is girls," said Weber.

Helen McPhaden, project director of Stardale Women's Group Inc., a non-profit agency for Aboriginal women and women of poverty in Saskatchewan, agreed with Weber's assessment that violence among girls is a growing problem.

Several reasons have been identified - everything from poor parenting skills and hormonal changes because of a poor diet to boredom and the feminist movement.

"Parenting is difficult. A lot of the young girls I deal with are from single-parent families or from a family where each one of their siblings is from a different father," said McPhaden, who also said the hormone-laden meat we eat causes girls' bodies to mature at an earlier age and the mind hasn't had a chance to catch up. This puts girls in a scenario where sexual expectations are being played out before they're emotionally ready.

Weber chooses her words carefully when identifying the changing role of women as a possible cause of increasing violence among teen girls: "The dynamics that lead to violence used to exclude girls and one of the downsides to a level playing field for girls and boys is that those dynamics that lead to violence now affect girls as well as boys. "

McPhaden is less worried about being politically correct.

"People don't know their roles anymore," said McPhaden. "If guys can do it, girls can too and girl violence can be a hell of a lot worse ... our brains work differently. We plan. We scheme. "

McPhaden, whose group is based in Melfort, Sask., received a $25,000 federal grant to conduct a focus group with 11 teenaged girls. The study, released last summer, found that these girls - in a haze of drug and alcohol - witnessed violence and took part in violence.

The study, which drew attention to the growing violence among girls in their region, bitterly divided the town of 5,500.

"It literally tore the community apart," she said. "A lot of people, if they could string me up and shoot me, would."

But it's not just a bunch of idle girls in small town Saskatchewan.

In pre-industrial civilizations, young girls as well as young boys used to be hunters and now "we have a lot of young people with nothing meaningful to do," said Weber.

As Sarah describes it, her life was a vicious cycle. Her dad left when she was 10 and her older sister went to live with a boyfriend. Then her older brother left, leaving a teenaged Sarah alone with a mom who had to work full-time. She started acting out in school, which resulted in suspensions and expulsions.

The punishment for bad behaviour landed Sarah in a situation where she had a lot of time to make friends with those who had also been expelled.

After watching a guy being shot and killed for trying to break up an argument, Sarah went from bad to worse: She and her posse would get liquored up, pile into a car and go looking for someone who had slighted one of her pals.

She doesn't remember using the machete on anyone - events aren't easily recalled as drinking was involved - but the threat was usually enough to make the other party back down.

It was only after a series of assaults and threats that Sarah ended up in a girls' detention centre. A short time in "jail" seemed to turn things around for her.

One of the conditions upon her release was that she could not fraternize with any of her previous friends.

Now she's in a special program at a high school that allows students aged 16 and up to face challenges - academic or personal - to get their diploma. Sarah is on track to graduate in 2006, and she wants to be a writer or a police officer.

Mathews noted that violence among girls, while perhaps on the increase, has always been around. It was a 16-year-old, 5-foot-1 Brenda Spencer who opened fire with a rifle she received as a Christmas present, on the elementary school across the street from her home, killing two and injuring nine in January 1979 in San Diego, Calif.

When police asked why she did it, she replied that she had been drinking and taking barbiturates and "I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day."

© The Canadian Press, 2005

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