A tipped-over arbor. A few empty beer cans. The occasional bit of graffiti. Annoyances all, but we can probably count ourselves lucky that’s usually as bad as youth issues get in this community.
Elsewhere, of course, youth crime is a much larger problem, with violence escalating. Again this week in Toronto, there were more shootings involving teens.
While youth crime is largely on a downward slope, along with many other categories of criminal activity, the public perception says otherwise.
Dr. Alan Leschied, a psychologist and professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Western Ontario, notes that while youth crime numbers are dropping, the “lethality of incidents” is on the rise. Simply put, teen violence is more deadly.
There was a time when schoolyard scuffles led to a bloodied nose or black eye at worst. Now it can mean a knife blade in the throat or a bullet hole in the chest.
Such incidents feed the idea that youth crime is on the rise. That’s partly due to the real increase in the level of violence and, more shockingly, the number of girls now caught up in the trend.
In the last dozen years, female violence rates have doubled, to eight per cent of teen violence numbers from four per cent, he says.
“It’s still more than 90 per cent boys. But [society] finds it extraordinary that girls can commit such acts.”
Take the example of Melissa Todorovic, now 17, the Toronto teen who was just sentenced to life in prison for her part in the Jan. 1, 2008 stabbing death of 14-year-old Stefanie Rengel. Just 15 at the time, Todorovic spent months badgering her boyfriend, 17 at the time, to kill the girl she saw as a rival. The boy, known only as D.B., is now 19 and awaiting sentencing, also as an adult, for the murder.
The Todorovic case was particularly shocking as it involved a teenage girl using sexual favours – and the threat of withholding them – over an extended period of time to badger her boyfriend into killing, Leschied explains.
This kind of violence is less of an anomaly than it used to be. It was only 12 years ago that the entire country was shocked by what happened to Reena Virk, the 14-year-old Victoria girl who died after being swarmed and beaten by eight teens, seven of them girls. The case brought to the fore the issue of violence among teen girls. The incidents have been more numerous of late.
In 2006 in Medicine Hat, Alberta, a 12-year-old girl and her 23-year-old boyfriend murdered the girl’s parents and her younger brother, 8. Also that year, two 14-year-old girls, a 12-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy were arrested following the unprovoked beating death of a 34-year-old woman in Winnipeg. Last summer, three teenage girls in Halifax beat a 65-year-old woman in a public park. That incident was quickly followed by another in which another group of three teenage girls beat and tortured a fourth girl over a two-hour period.
Still dwarfed by the number of acts undertaken by boys, violence committed by girls catches our attention nonetheless.
The figures showing the trend are clear. Less obvious is why girls are becoming more violent.
For Leschied, a combination of factors, including a change in girls’ image of themselves and less supervision in the home, are likely behind the trend.
“Girls’ role models have changed – they’re a lot edgier,” he says, pointing to the evolution in “girl culture.”
Taking on some of the aggressive qualities traditionally associated with boys, girls have also adopted some of the more problematic traits. With girl power comes the chance for more conflict in some instances.
Even more troubling are incidents where the perpetrators come from good homes, such as is the case with Todorovic, where family and friends never saw it coming.
“That’s every parent’s nightmare – that they did everything right, but something still went wrong … with their child.”
With Todorovic, however, the signs were there, as prosecutors were able to trot out e-mails and text messages showing the teenager spent months urging her boyfriend to kill Rengel.
It’s impossible to know if more intervention into their daughter’s life – monitoring her computer and cell phone use, for instance – by Todorovic’s parents could have prevented the murder, but that kind of parental control might be what it takes to make a difference, Leschied suggests.
“This case is … a reminder to parents that they need to be more intrusive than they’re comfortable doing.”
Parents today seem less inclined to be invasive, to keep track of what their kids are doing, precisely at a time when technology provides far more avenues for teens to communicate and to keep secrets.
While such measures, he says, can never reduce the likelihood of such acts occurring all the way down to zero, they could prove helpful. The old bit about “It’s 11 o’clock, Do You Know Where Your Kids Are?” needs to be updated to “Do You Know What Your Kids Are Up To?” … even if they are at home.