Girl-to-girl violence: the voice of the victims.
By proactively examining when--and under what conditions--various forms of aggression emerge in girl-to-girl violence, and by exploring the effects of the violence on victims, this article seeks to sensitize pre-adolescent girls, families, teachers, counselors, and administrators about girl-to-girl violence prevention and cessation. Some prior literature on girls and boys who are victims has included classification of victims (Schwartz, Proctor, & Chien, 2001) and the negative effects of victimization (Ladd & Kochenderfer-Ladd, 2002; Snyder et al., 2003). However, it is telling that most of the prior literature on girl-to-girl violence is based on the perspective of the perpetrator.
This article's purpose is to sensitively examine the point of view of the primary and secondary victims, rather than "relegate them to the realms of 'subjectivism'" (Debarbieux, 2002, p. 39). Although pre-adolescent girls with a strong sense of personal identity, self-worth, and a respect for others typically do not engage in violent behavior, the question is whether they become victims of school violence. What is the trajectory of victimization in girl-to-girl violence for both primary and secondary victims? To better frame a context for answering these questions, I examined a case of victimization that began in pre-adolescence and extended over the course of the primary victim's grade 7 school year. It was only in grade 9, at the age of 14, that she felt able to discuss her perceptions of what happened to her. I also obtained the perceptions of her family members as secondary victims.
The Primary Victim's Voice
Lina was in grade 7 in a school in a mid-size city in western Canada at the time of the girl-to-girl violence. She used anime characters from a Japanese children's fantasy cartoon to tell her story. Lina chose her name, "Lina," from the heroic female character. She selected the name "Val" for the female perpetrator of the violence against her, based on the name Valgaav, an evil male character from the fantasy story. Lina shared the characters with me as an icebreaker, telling me that she read anime cartoons and drew the characters in her spare time. Lina created artistic anime depictions of her family members and the school authorities, as seen in Figure 1. She used symbolism in her artwork to help her find the words to communicate her story of victimization.
"Lina" (Figure 1, top left) is a powerful character in the anime who does not know her own strength. She uses a bolt of energy against bandits (her schoolmates), who underestimate her. "Valgaav" (Figure 1, top right) is Lina's antithesis--an evil character, a monster, a plague on the earth. Hereafter, the name "Val" and female pronouns are used, to match the actual events of the girl-to-girl violence. Nobody knows what Val wants or what her motives are, nor even, at first, that she is evil. She has weaknesses and attempts to gather strength through sources of human power under her control, such as other girls and boys in the school and from the time she demanded Lina spend tutoring her. Despite Val's ability to gather the sources of power and unite boys and girls in the school to join "the hate club," Lina eventually defeats these evil forces with the help of her supportive friends Amelia (Lina's mother), Filia (Lina's grandmother), Gourry (Lina's grandfather), and Zelgadis (Lina's father). In the beginning, however, all of her caring allies were blind to the victimization. They saw Val as friendly and supportive of Lina. When Val became aggressive and demanded that Lina complete assignments for her, the relationship changed and Amelia (Figure 1, center left) had to use her powers of white magic to support Lina in her decision to stop doing Val's work for her. Filia (Figure 1, center), the protective and vigilant golden dragon, wise in age and thoughtfulness, would go after school to act as a "hallway patrol" to ensure that Val could not act with physical aggression toward Lina. Gourry (Figure 1, bottom left), with his sword of light and knowledge, was the first to go to the school principal "Rezo" (Figure 1, center right) and ask for "fair treatment" for Lina. Zelgadis (Figure 1, bottom right)--part golem, part human, and part chimera--used his white magic powers to help Lina find the path back to fortune and achievement.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
Lina deliberately placed the depiction of the school principal, Rezo (Figure 1, center right), directly under the picture of Val (because she sees him as heavily influenced by Val). Rezo is a red-robed priest who has power over the village people ("school counselor and teachers"), but he cannot see when to use his powers because he is blind. Even though many people live in the village and sheer numbers would suggest that they have power, they do not, in fact, have any power, so they are not in the picture ("they cannot be seen"). When Amelia (Lina's mother), Filia (Lina's grandmother), Gourry (Lina's grandfather), and Zelgadis (Lina's father) join forces to meet Rezo and the village people on the field of battle (the principal's office), the people at whom she gets angry shrink and stop bothering Lina.
Through both artistic and narrative representations, Lina conveyed the principal elements and human dynamics that contributed to a concerted continuum of aggression and violence, based on Val's manipulation and control. The conduit of victimization was "blindness" to the possibility of violence. As Lina said, "I didn't see it coming, the school officials didn't believe it was happening, and my family didn't know it was happening to me." While the subtle onset of girl-to-girl violence may make it difficult to recognize the instant it begins, it is important to understand the progression of girl-to-girl violence if we are to see the warning signs that can allow us to detect and address bullying at an early stage.
Thematic Progression of Girl-to-Girl Violence
The development of girl-to-girl violence progressed through six themes. Table 1 presents the progression found in the results, along with the actions and responses of the bully and victims.
The first theme, initial blindness, is consistent with past research indicating that families and caregivers may resort to a coping mechanism that downplays the impact of violence, or that they simply may be unaware of symptoms, such as difficulty with concentration, that frequently follow traumatization (Osofsky, Wewers, Hann, & Fick, 1993). This blindness set the stage for the aggression that followed.
The second theme, reputational conflict, arose when Lina's perceived popularity and status with peers, her self-perceptions, the family's perceptions, and the school's perception of her social adjustment came into conflict. Much of the literature indicates that youth aspire to be popular with their peers and judged as worthy by their teachers. Perceived popularity among youth is a socially constructed reputational variable associated with personal attraction, sexual desirability, physical or academic talent, and possessions (Rose, Swenson, & Waller, 2004). Teacher-measured judgments about students are based on social adjustment, academic ability, classroom behaviors, and peer popularity. Lina's father and mother, however, believed that "being popular takes time away from study and achievement." For Lina, the conflict was further complicated, because she had trouble balancing all of her school/teacher, family, and friendship responsibilities and expectations with the added workload of completing Val's homework. Lina reported that "my teachers saw me as fitting in. As long as I was friends with Val and [acting as] her tutor, everything was okay, but it really wasn't." Her friendship and teacher aide role with Val had eased her relationship with her teachers and increased their estimation of her social adjustment, academic standing, behavior in the classroom, and popularity with her peers.
The remaining themes in the developmental progression of girl-to-girl violence came to light when Lina said, "No, Val, I won't do your homework anymore." Lina became a target for Val's anger. The aggression was progressive and thoughtful, beginning with silent aggression, and moving on to outspoken aggression, physical aggression, and finally peaking with physical aggression on a family member and a death threat against the primary victim with a weapon.
Generally, these findings differ from those in the work of Bjorkqvist (2001), who indicates that aggression is initially physical; as this approach exposes the bully to the danger of being caught, however, he or she tends to replace physical aggression with more verbal strategies. As their social intelligence develops further, children are able to analyze and manipulate social relations to achieve aggression by more indirect means (Bjorkqvist, 2001). However, Bjorkqvist casts a wide net over the developmental continuum for boys and girls as they age. This work focused on girl-to-girl violence in the particular age group that Bjorkqvist identifies as using indirect aggressive strategies. This work found that the aggression began with more indirect strategies commensurate with the age group; since the underlying conflict was never resolved, however, the bully regressed to strategies associated with earlier age groups.
Val was a socially adept bully in grade 7 who strategically employed silent (indirect) aggression to signal rejection of Lina in a public manner while inducing Lina's victimized response of fear, self-loathing, and disengagement. When this strategy proved ineffective at intimidating Lina into continuing to do Val's homework, Val escalated to the use of outspoken (verbal) aggression to humble Lina by removing artifacts of popularity, including destruction of possessions and degradation of talent, attractiveness, and social power. Lina responded as a victim, with confusion, silence, humiliation, and taking the hate to heart. Val then escalated to physical aggression, first in private and then in public. According to the victims, Val expressed no fear of being caught, because she had ingratiated herself with school authorities. Astonishingly, Val's physical aggression culminated in a death threat, which failed to progress as Lina's family intervened. It is important to note that when Val's death threat failed, she reverted to the indirect or silent aggression that Bjorkqvist indicates is more characteristic of her age group. However, this change appeared to be less a manifestation of her social intelligence and more a reflection of her simply being prevented from successfully aggressing by more violent means.
Could this progressive victimization have happened to a boy? The literature indicates that the progression of violence for boys does not begin as it does with girls--through indirect social assault--but rather starts with immediate insults and threats. Furthermore, among boys, this verbal violence rapidly escalates to serious physical fights and other acts of physical aggression if the male victim argues with the bully (Hanish & Guerra, 2004; Thorne, 1993). The literature suggests that these gender-linked contrasts (e.g., judgmental and argumentative vs. caring) exist and promote static dualisms and beliefs in some society that girls are cooperative and will not engage in physical aggression or be victims of girl-to-girl violence, while boys are argumentative, competitive, and aggressive. Could the girl-to-gift violence occur because social conditioning prevents school-based authorities, girls, and their families from believing that girls can be physically aggressive with each other? The social objectification of what is feminine conduct and masculine conduct casts girls as "good" and boys as "bad." These differing gender-normative trajectories reinforce a model of physical aggression that is based on the more immediate nature expressed by boys, thus blinding school and family authorities to any escalation of aggression from the more indirect manner that is associated with girls.
Combating the Violence
How can young female victims, their parents, and professionals be informed with respect to preventing girl-to-girl violence?
For Young Girls and Their Families. During the course of the interview, Lina presented proactive thoughts to restore justice (Thorsborne, 2005). She indicated that she would "encourage a victim of girl-to-girl violence to approach the bully before it gets out of control. See if there is anything the two of you can do to sort the problem out so that it doesn't happen again." Lina and her parents recognized that the primary victim's voice was not heard when she informed the principal and counselor that Val had punched her. Lina's parents encouraged victims of girl-to-girl violence to be "comfortable talking to your parents and don't be ashamed that you can't handle or deal with violence. Be comfortable learning strategies from your parents to help you deal with the violence without being violent yourself. You are not alone." The grandparents spoke to victims, saying:
When a [female] bully attacks you, do not flinch or act fearful. Turn to the bully and say in a casual voice, "I am not interested in you." This establishes your personal boundary. Then walk away and go talk to your parents. Gather enough facts to convey to teachers, counselors, and the principal. Find a witness to truthfully support your concerns. Then go to the principal with your parents, and if the principal does not do something, then go with your parents to the superintendent.
All of the solutions centered on a systematic process of restorative justice that brings together the offender, the victim, their families, and appropriately trained school personnel "to explore the harm done to all those affected, decide what needs to be done to repair the harm, and how to minimize the chance of it happening again" (Thorsborne, 2005). The emphasis is on promoting open communication so that victimization is no longer possible. Lina's father reflected that "a unified response could have happened a lot sooner if everybody felt more comfortable communicating about Val's aggression and Lina's fearful responses." Parents need to be aware of the symptoms or reactions to violence displayed by the primary victim and be willing to openly talk about it.
For Teachers. The primary and secondary victims believed that Lina's experience held implications for the teachers. Lina encouraged teachers to "regain your personal empowerment by knowing about the stages of violence. Teachers need training or something to become informed and vigilant to know the signs of violence. They need to clarify their own values and beliefs about how they will respond to the violence, the victims, and to the bully." Lina encouraged teachers to become aware of the fact that a state of blindness provides opportunities for female bullies to escalate their aggression unimpeded.
Lina also asked the teachers, "Do you see victims as losers who deserve what they get?" This question essentially asks teachers to face their biases (Hall & Rhomberg, 1995). Lina's mother encouraged teachers to "be actively interested in all children, not just the powerful, wealthy, or attractive." All children have a right to be safe in school. This viewpoint was further substantiated by Lina's father, who said, "Children need to know it is safe to report violence and that teachers will talk amongst each other and work as a team to watch for and help prevent further bullying." Teachers need to have more formalized discussion periods to be able to track what is happening in the school. Lina's grandmother spoke about the need for "yearly school reconstruction to bully-proof the schools, with teachers taking courses, getting free materials, and implementing violence prevention programs." Finally, Lina's grandfather said to the teachers, "Please, teachers, take complaints from the students seriously. You must confront a bully, express concerns about the behavior, and identify what reprimand the school has for non-compliance." It is important to note that these comments were being made not about violence and bullying in general, but rather about girl-to-girl violence from people focused on a specific experience. All of these concerned comments require that teachers be engaged in the day-to-day happenings and relationships between all children and to supervise hallways, locker bays, washrooms, physical education change rooms, and outdoor play areas with an open mind about all of the contexts in which violence can occur.
For Counselors. Lina was concerned about counselors' responses to female victims. She encouraged counselors to "try to understand underlying reasons for the problem on the side of the victim and not just the bully, and find possible solutions and consequences for the violence." Lina saw that counselors should work together with the teachers to provide a stable and safe environment for girls. Lina's father felt that counselors should model respect and common courtesy. "The counselor came off as imperious and superior. No one likes being treated this way," he said. "Treat all families and children as equals to yourself." When asked about the counselor, Lina's grandmother had the following advice: "Don't be an adult bully." These comments reflected the family's perception that the counselor didn't believe that severe girl-to-girl violence was possible. This suggests the need for including inservice training for counselors as part of any program to bully-proof a school.
For Principals. Lina encouraged the principal to "find out more about the background of the problem and give female victims a chance to stand up and tell what happened." The secondary victims all cited the need for a school plan of action for violence prevention and cessation. Lina's mother described the environment that breeds bullying by girls: "Female bullies thrive when a school does not recognize the signs of girl-to-girl violence and therefore has no plan for stopping indirect personal attacks before they escalate." Female bullies manipulate and control female victims by generating gestures of intimacy and progressively deconstructing these gestures with silence, verbal and physical aggression, and threats to victim support. Lina's father made a plea to ensure that "school violence prevention is a recurring agenda item for monthly staff meetings, with opportunities for all staff to report new social issues [and] concerns and [to] seek solutions." He further indicated that one person must be given the professional assignment to "track and maintain logs of bullying--of girls, not just boys." This job should be performed by all the teachers on a rotational basis and would ensure that teachers take note of the subtle exclusionary practices that girls initially employ to dehumanize and victimize other girls.
For the Survivor. Shortly after the interviews, Lina entered grade 10 in the same school. This was not an easy decision for Lina and her family. She indicated, "We talked a lot about moving to a new school but I wanted to prove to myself that I could really get over the violence and threats." Although Val had bullied other children in the school she was not expelled for this violence. She was expelled, however, for possession of drugs and alcohol. Val's hate club members did not reconfigure to form a new group, nor did Lina retaliate with a hate group of her own. "I can help other girls who were bullied by Val to regain their confidence and courage," Lina said. Although the literature suggests that new alliances are formed after aggression and acts of violence, this work supports the possibility of children individually finding a restorative way to create a sense of equality and balance to their relationships. In fact, Lina de-objectified herself as a victim and has become a school advocate for equality, communication, and unification.
The levels of bias against female victims and ignorance of violence progression must be determined and remedied. The frequency of occurrence of the various levels of aggression must be determined. How often does a conflict reach the level of silent aggression, outspoken aggression, and physical aggression before a resolution is sought or achieved? How often is the resolution sought or achieved by the children, by their families, and by school personnel? Finally, a program of restorative or transformative justice, such as that based on the recommendations of Lina and her family, should be implemented at sites found to have a high incidence of aggression. Lina and her family have shared their voices about their experiences as victims of gift-to-girl violence. Lina and her family granted their permission to use the material in these interviews if it really would help other victims. I believe that it will.
Wanda Boyer's research interests are in the acquisition of self-regulation in pre-adolescent and young children, with support from parents and teachers. She would like to acknowledge her research affiliation with the Centre for Youth and Society at the University of Victoria, B.C., Canada.
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Wanda Boyer is Associate Professor, Department of Educational Psychology and Leadership Studies, University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
Table 1 Developmental Trajectory of Girl-to-Girl Violence The Girl-to-Girl The Primary Victim's The Secondary Violence and the Responses Victims' Responses Bully's Actions Blindness to Blind to Val's power, Blind to power differences between because there imbalance because herself and the victim was a they were * Alignment of * Sublimation of * Supportive of personalities victim's victim's desire * Manipulation personality to make friends and control over * Dependence * Dependent on Lina for homework on bully for victim to completion friendship say more about her relationships Reputational Conflict Reputational Conflict Reputational Conflict * Bully needs * Victim wanting * Support victim's victim's help and, to be popular friendships vs. in exchange, could vs. not wanting support work ethic help victim fit in to fail and achievement Silent Aggression Silent Aggression Silent Aggression * Withdrawal of * Fearful and * "She is not attention anxious listening to us" * Exclusion * "People hate me" * Dealing with the * Isolation * Absenteeism and silence illness * Emotionally draining Outspoken Aggression Outspoken Aggression Outspoken Aggression * Destruction and * Disorientation * Shock at seeing theft of property and confusion victim lose the * Degrading language * "I kept my anger pieces of her life * Attack on social quiet" * Signs of depression acceptability * Felt "taken * "Hallway patrol" * Formation of a down" and response to hate club humiliated school's inaction * Taking the hate * Realizing that this personally hate club will not last forever Physical Aggression Physical Aggression Physical Aggression * Attacking in * Surprised by the * Strategic planning private violence to out-think the * Attacking in * Feeling bully public distrustful of * Stand your ground * Death threats school * Determined to authorities prevent further * Fearful violence Threat to Victim Means of Combating Means of Combating Support Violence Violence * Challenge to * Turning to your * Taking the external support family and violence * Challenge to other girls seriously internal support * "I have to * Seeing and believe that supporting it's not all the strength in my fault" the victim
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|Date:||Aug 15, 2008|
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