Guadalupe Herrera was an eighth-grader at Skyview Middle School, a tough girl with attitude and a gang wardrobe, when she learned another girl was spreading rumors about her. One day, she walked by the girl, who pointed at her and began whispering.
"I said, 'If you've got something to say to me, say it to my face,' " said Guadalupe, who turned and walked away. "I wasn't even 5 feet away from her when she said, 'That psycho border-hopper.'"It was like a spit in the face," Guadalupe said. "I was born and raised here. I'm just as American as she is. My blood zoomed up. I started shaking."
Guadalupe's violent reaction, which ended with her arrest after pummeling her tormenter on a field outside the school, made her
"I hit her hard, with everything I had," Guadalupe said. "I was bombing on her."
In Colorado, while overall violent crime by girls has gone down, the number of assaults — such as Guadalupe's fistfight — has gone up about 5 percent a year since 2001, said Lisa Pasko, an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Denver.
Pasko has just completed a two-year study of violent middle-school and high-school girls in Colorado's juvenile-justice system, funded by a grant from the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, to find out how best to reduce the number of girls in the system and prevent recidivism. The report, scheduled to be presented to the state's Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Task Force on Dec. 1, shows a spike in the number of girls in the system.
Between 2003 and 2006, the commitment rate for girls ages 12 to 17 increased 52 percent, while the detention rate increased 28 percent. Commitment is long-term incarceration, similar to prison, while detention is for shorter terms, like a county jail.
The trend is also seen nationally. Between 1999 and
"Some girls are saying that their lives are harder, and they're using violence as a strategy," said Pasko, who spent time with serious offenders. "There is more disconnection, more moms on parole or partnering with a guy who is not good or who is volatile."
In 1996, Colorado became one of the few states to create gender-specific guidelines for girls in the juvenile-justice system, a comprehensive approach centered on female development and how girls learn.
A 2008 U.S. Department of Justice report cited as its most significant finding a "lack of reliable, accurate, and comprehensive information about good prevention and intervention programing for girls." The report went on to state that most of the programs "had not been evaluated to the degree that they could be considered 'effective.' "
"The demand for these services is greater than ever," said Jeanne Smith, director of the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice. "As a state, we're trying to reduce recidivism . . . and a part of that is recognizing the demographics of offenders in the system, which has shown an increase in female offenders."
Girls learn differently from boys and are motivated by different things, so lowering the recidivism rate for girls depends on helping them in ways that work for them.
"Girls that come into the system have a lot of boundary issues, trust issues and problems in their relationships," Pasko said. "Many times, these unhealthy relationships are what is getting them into crime in the first place."
Teaching them how to have healthy relationships requires very small groups, which help build intimacy and trust and also target how girls think.
Girls in the juvenile justice system also have experienced childhood victimization at much higher rates than boys, according to the study called "Unique Needs of Girls in the Juvenile Justice System" by Physicians for Human Rights.
Up to 92 percent of incarcerated girls have experienced some form of abuse — physical, emotional, sexual — before entering the system.
A violent past
For Guadalupe Herrera, domestic violence was a key factor. Her mother's boyfriend, who lived with them, started beating her when she was 4 years old.
"He was alcoholic," she said. "I was his beat-down toy. There wasn't a day when he didn't hit me."
He would throw her against a wall or "between his legs like a football," she said.
Eventually, her grandmother took Guadalupe and her older sister to live with her.
"My mom worked three jobs, and when she wasn't working, she was fighting with him," Guadalupe said.
It all stopped when she was about 10.
"He was beating my mom, and then he grabbed my little sister and threw her against the wall, and she was bleeding from her nose," Guadalupe said.
Guadalupe's mother called the police, and her boyfriend went to court, then received a five-year jail sentence. By then, Guadalupe was a fifth-grader who had taught herself to be so tough that when boys tried to pick on her in school, they quickly learned that was a bad idea.
"This one boy tried to push me, so I pushed him back, and he fell to the floor and started crying," Guadalupe said. "When I did that, I felt this rush. I felt so good. They didn't pick on me anymore."
In eighth grade, arrested for assault, she ended up in teen court, where the judge sent her to an all-girl intervention program called InterCept Too in Colorado Springs.
She was furious.
"I told my mom, 'I'm not going to that stupid group. It's all girls, and I don't like girls. I will be going to juvenile hall, because I will knock somebody out.' "
Building on breakthroughs
That's a typical reaction, said Kimberly Bolding, director of youth services at the Women's Resource Agency in Colorado Springs, who runs InterCept Too.
"Most girls who come here say, 'No, I can't do an all-girls group. I hate girls. All my friends are guys. Girls are haters,' " Bolding said.
The program focuses on teaching girls how to develop healthy relationships with girls and women and how to channel their anger in positive ways.
But for more than half of the 10-week series of classes, Guadalupe hated them. She sat far in the back, away from the other girls. Mostly, she rolled her eyes and glared, speaking as little as possible.
"She had so much anger she couldn't see straight," Bolding said.
In the seventh session, when the topic was domestic abuse, she suddenly opened up and began to share her own experience. Bolding asked her how the abuse had affected her and how she coped with it.
"I said, 'I don't have coping skills. I don't even know what that is. I just suck it all in and keep it in until someone really makes me mad, and then I blow up on them,' " Guadalupe said.
After the 10-week session was over, Bolding kept working with Guadalupe in one-on-one counseling sessions and in meetings with her mother.
And though the Justice Department report states that "researchers are unsure how effective these programs are" because of a lack of evidence, Guadalupe is one of InterCept Too's success stories. Now 15, she hopes to eventually join the Air Force and attend college.
"I'm much happier now," she said. "Before, I would cuss you out and then hit you in the face. Now, I wouldn't even cuss you out. I'd just say what I had to say in a classier way."