Some girls are mean (and violent). Anything new?

Teresa Williams, the principal of Oakland’s Bret Harte Middle School, said it seems like a brochure for some “Mean Girls” conference crosses her desk at least once a week.

Williams hasn’t attended such a seminar yet, but her school experienced a real-life example Nov. 7, when a seventh-grader was jumped at lunchtime by another girl — and then by two or three of that young woman’s friends. 

The 13-year-old girl, who had transferred to Bret Harte from another Oakland school this year, suffered head, neck and arm injuries and spent at least two nights at Children’s Hospital Oakland. She did not belong to a gang, Williams said, but one of the suspected attackers claimed there was a Norteño/Sureño conflict at play.

The girl who apparently instigated the beating is awaiting an expulsion hearing and “most likely will not return,” Williams said.  (That girl and the victim are Latina, and the others are African-American, according to the principal.)

The victim probably won’t return to Bret Harte, either — or any other Oakland school, for that matter. Her family apparently plans to move to Guatemala.

“That’s what’s sad,” Williams said, adding that many of her students were upset by what happened.

Williams said she heard the attack was plotted on MySpace beforehand, but that she hadn’t seen any evidence that it was true. She also said she didn’t know if any of the alleged attackers — two of whom, according to police, might face charges in juvenile court — actually belonged to a gang, or if “they just wanted to pretend that they’re bad.”

Still she said, girl-on-girl violence is an issue. “With girls, the fight doesn’t stop. It continues on,” she said.

This fall, I interviewed a female student at Oakland Technical High School who said she was regularly stalked at school this spring by a gang of girls from another school. The group of girls (who were obviously skipping class) would find her in the hallway or at lunch and harrass her, and she was ultimately jumped at an off-campus deli, she said.

My own high school in the Chicago suburbs made international news in 2003 when a group of girls met out in a field, ostensibly to play “powder puff football.” Video (filmed by male spectators) of the notorious hazing incident shows a group of high school juniors kneeling on the ground, getting punched and slapped — oh, and getting slathered with paint, mud and animal feces.

I don’t want to overstate the “mean girls” problem, or to suggest that it’s a new phenomenon that’s wildly out of control (or that it’s limited to physical violence). But I wonder how it’s manifesting itself in local schools, and how those schools and other agencies are addressing it. Does the issue need more attention? What kind?

image from Pink Rocker’s site at flickr.com/creativecommons

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Nextset

    The sad thing is that any “student” with gang marks is allowed to set foot on a campus with normal children. A gang tattoo – or any mark that tends to signify gang membership – should result in that person being enrolled in an alternative education campus.

  • Concerned Citizen

    “an alternative school” – Nextset?

    NO! Kids at alternative schools rarely develop into reasonable citizens. They should be sent to military schools or those boot camps for high-risk kids where they are taught tough lessons in difficult situations. Those are the only ways in which to break this cycle of violence, as their world is turned upside down and they have no choice but yield to the proper conduct in a civil society.

  • Sue

    Darn that pesky First Amendment! Students have a right (whether or not anyone agrees that they should) to wear or display these emblems. Sometimes a school district can make *very* narrow rules restricting certain specific symbols, but the district has to be extremely careful in doing so.

    Since the primary symbol of my religion has sometimes been confused with a “gang” symbol (it isn’t – we’re just a small minority religion, so most people aren’t familiar with our symbol), I have first-hand experience with how tricky it can be. When school districts have erroneously attempted to ban a religious symbol (mine or other religions), the members of the religion always, *always* win the resulting lawsuit. There’s nothing quite like rallying people from around the country and the world to defend their sacred images and icons. Most school districts quickly follow the advise of their lawyers, and the cases don’t usually even get into court.

    Because religious freedom and comparative religions are such strong personal interests, I’m familiar with a quite a few different religions’ symbols. If OUSD wants to implement an anti-gang-symbol policy, they would need someone like me on any committee which would be developing the list of specific symbols not permitted – to save the district a whole lot of time, expense and legal hassles for trying to ban the wrong ones.

    But what usually seems to happen is that districts drop the whole idea of banning any symbols at all, because it’s just too hard to make any list of prohibited symbols bulletproof against First Amendment challenges.

  • Nextset

    Sue: No, They don’t have this “right”. Public Schools should sanction anyone marked with a 13 or 14, signifying popular Mexican Criminal Gangs.

    It’s the refusal to even pretend that the public schools have an obligation to maintain safe facilities that are responsible for the destruction of the public schools, and through that event the distruction of American Cities such as Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, etc.

    Even if our appellate courts decided that the schools must allow gang menbers in without sanction – setting up competitive schools with selective admission (such as San Francisco’s Lowell high) would tend to keep out the worst of the psychopathic and antisocial “students” who could not make the cut. This is something that very few districts – SF for one – will do.

    American/Californian families should not have to spend $20,000+ to send a 12 year old to a school free of gang members and disfunctionals. The public should be able to live in a large city and have a reasonable expectation of sending their child to a public school that is stocked with students reasonably close to performance and function as their own, whatever that is. Since the school districts won’t do it the families have to try to accomplish this by putting distance between their children and the violent criminal chindren. Thus the collapse of our cities and the rise of the suburbs. At some point you have to move to a flight state – Utah anyone? Or just make sure you are rich.

    Not a good thing for a viable society.

  • Nextset

    Concerned: Make no mistake. The problem children (especially the males) I’m referring to are going to be dead or in prison by age 30. Our society has no intention of making them into “citizens”. They are not even considered human in the end. They are just things to be institutionalized if the escape the morgue as adolescents.

    Because our public schools won’t fix them they are only there for a short while before they leave without ever graduating and migrate to the streets until death or imprisonment.

    Too Bad, So Sad.

  • Ann Nomura

    Like many Oaklander’s I voted for Measure “Y” to fund violence prevention program in the City Oakland. I have also supported County Supervisor Nate Miley in his efforts to develop and fund county violence prevention programs. So I am shocked to learn that OUSD dissolved the internal agency that dealt with children and families in crisis and that they have no coordinated reporting system or plan address violence in the schools.

    Both Supervisor Nate Miley and Council person Jean Quan boast of their achievements and expertise in the area of violence prevention. They represent the families of Bret Harte. The Oakland Unified School District needs to work with the City and the County to support families in crisis and prevent violence. They should not be “dumping children” and failing to find them the City and County programs which can support them in staying in school and achieving up to their potential.

    How is the OUSD coordinating with the City of Oakland and the County of Alameda to prevent violence in the schools?

    What do Jean Quan and Nate Miley have to say about what happened at Bret Harte?

    Will the OUSD be holding a public meeting with Council Member Jean Quan, County Supervisor Nate Miley, Police Chief Wayne Tucker and Roberta Mayor to present their coordinated plan to address violence in the schools?

  • Nextset

    Ann: Do you agree that you cannot “address” violence in the M-13 gangs or the Norteno and Suerno gangs. They have their own priorities and non-violence is not their thing and it never will be.

    If the public schools allow these gangs into their properties it’s game over. And there are adults behind the minor gangsters giving the orders – it’s not as if the child gang members are able to thrown down their weapons and smoke a peace pipe. They must follow their gang rules, or themselves face corporal discipline.

    The only way to win with these people is never to play with them. They must not be allowed anywhere near normal kids.

    And remember, in Los Angeles, the Mexican Gangs have practiced racial cleansing, removing all blacks including children, from their sight by gunfire. It’s very effective, I hear.

  • Sue

    Nextset Says:
    November 17th, 2008 at 6:30 pm
    Sue: No, They don’t have this “right”. Public Schools should sanction anyone marked with a 13 or 14, signifying popular Mexican Criminal Gangs.

    Well, of course, *you* are the official legal expert on this blog, so all of my experience must simply be wrong.

    Over and over for the last 10-12 years I’ve gotten notifications that some school district, somewhere around the country was trying to reduce or eliminate a gang problem by limiting symbols permitted on school grounds. I got those notices because I’m active in my religious community, and my/our religious symbol was included with other symbols that the school-district-of-the-moment was trying to ban. And then my letter would join a few dozen, or a few hundred, or sometimes more than a thousand letters sent to the school-district-of-the-moment.

    When I first became involved in defending relious rights (yeah, I’ve stood up – or well, written letters, anyway – for other religions besides my own) the next step was scrounging enough money to hire a lawyer for the student (always, this starts with a student in the school being told to take off or cover up their religious jewelry – but without similar orders to Christian students to remove their crosses) and defend the religious symbol, because the school districts usually wanted to ignore the First Amendment and ban our symbol anyway.

    Later, the letter writing campaigns began siting the previous lawsuits from earlier incidents, and today, there’s enough of a body of case law that the district’s legal representatives usually convince them pretty quickly to back off from their misguided plan to ban symbols.

    Ocassionally, a district will still go ahead with a ban on a *very* limited basis – only of symbols like your 13 or 14, which can’t be associated with any religion in any way. But most of the time, they find it’s too difficult to research all the possible symbols that *might* be religious in some way, and so they end up banning nothing at all, because they don’t want to face lawsuits.

    Although, I have to say, if I were going to try to mount a legal defence for a gang-symbol, I’d argue that “13” was a reference to the 12 apostles and Jesus at the Last Supper – and I’d have a reasonable shot at winning on the grounds that this was a religious symbol protected by the First Amendment.

    Just my experience on the subject of schools attempting to limit students’ rights. I’m sure you’ll dismiss and ignore it all, since it doesn’t agree with how you think our local district *should* be run. Darned First Amendment!

  • Nextset

    Sue: Try wearing 13 in 14 territory. Go right ahead. Schools can limit expression for reasons that are well articulated and required for safety. You cannot yell fire in a crowded theatre. You are just wrong.

    What’s important here is that many urban schools don’t bother. The reason they don’t bother is that the safety of their urban kids isn’t as important as the safety of Ken and Barbie in suburban schools, much less in private schools. And the safety of black kids is apparently no biggie at all. Maybe it’s felt that since we can look at a mortality table and other charts and see that they aren’t expected to live so long or stay out of prison anyway, why fight it.

    You run your system and I’ll run mine. I want better for these kids and that doesn’t include sitting in a classroom next to 13s and 14s, much less M-13. A rotten apple can spoil the lot. Gangbangers should have their own schools.

  • Sue

    Yes, schools can limit expression (and dress) “for reasons that are well articulated and required for safety. You cannot yell fire in a crowded theatre.”

    I didn’t say anything else – what I said was that school districts trying to limit student expression is very, very difficult to do successfully. I’ve seen too many examples of districts that failed to develop any policy at all because their attempts were poorly articulated, and placed unconstitutional limits on expression that had no effect at all on safety, health or providing a good learning environment.

    Most districts don’t seem to have the knowledge and expertese to craft a policy that will accomplish these goals, and also avoid unnecessarily limiting students’ rights of expression. When the policy isn’t well thought out, it fails the first legal challenge, and then the district is back to no policy at all. That’s where most districts give up.

    I have seen a few (very few! maybe two) exceptions, where a district went back, reviewed and revised their first (unconstitutional) policy in light of the court’s ruling, and on a second or third attempt came up with a policy that met all the requirements.

    But this is OUSD we’re talking about now – what do you think the chances are of this district getting it right?

  • Sue

    I think the real solution isn’t banning symbols at all.

    The limits that are needed are limits on *behavior*.

  • Nextset

    Sue: You fail to see the distinction between symbols and ownership brands. You also don’t seem to have a clue how dangerous and aggessive criminal gangs are.

    You are not one to protect our children. Your policies make excuses to put our schoolchildren at risk.

  • Sue

    Please articulate clearly whatever-it-is that you believe are “my policies”?

    I’ll say clearly that I believe “your policies” would include repealing the First Amendment. I’ve called your policies fascism several times in the past and never seen you contradict the label.

  • Nextset

    Sue: You aren’t going to see it, either. I believe you and I represent different sides of the spectrum here.

    I believe in the urban schools being safe places where students aquire skills for upward mobility in the US society. There is little facist about that. From what I see – and it’s only my point of view – your position is that the schools should be politically correct above all else, and the children can just take their lumps on safety and progress.

    So far your side is in control of our Urban Schools – at least it feels this way. You don’t control the Charters, who are forming to escape your policy. But they are small.

    And We, who once went to public schools ourselves, must now send our children to $23K+ private primary and secondary schools to avoid the chaos in the (politically correct?) public schools.

    So we end up with a hereditary aristocracy. Just as we were warned about. And they will even have their own speech patterns, just like the old UK.

    You and I can debate policy but in the long run it seems the die is cast. Enjoy the world you and those like you are making for us.

    Brave New World.

  • Sue

    Um, that was so far off the mark, I have to wonder whose posts you’ve been attributing to me.

    I too believe that schools should be safe places for students. That’s why I said *behavior* needs to be limited. (see post number 11)

    This whole discussion of symbols came from you – your usual axe-grinding only vaguely related to the topic. Nothing in the original article referred to gang-symbols at all. There was a mention that one of the attackers made an unsubstanciated claim that the attack was somehow gang-related, but nobody said the victim or any of the girls were wearing the wrong colors, symbols, what-have-you.

    For all we know, the attacker was mad at the victim because she thought she stole her boyfriend. Just as likely as a gang connection – maybe more likely at a middle school. The problem here was because of the attackers’ behavior, not your gang-symbols fixation. Even if there were symbols in the incident somewhere (outside your imagination), they were just an excuse for the behavior, and the behavior is still the problem that needs to be corrected. Since the victim spent a couple of days in the hospital, I would favor a criminal correction of the behavior that I believe was criminal.

    But, you have a personal problem with symbols, and somehow my arguments in support of students’ First Amendment rights makes me in favor of violence in schools? That makes no sense at all, but it sure adds to my layman’s opinion that you might have an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

    I’m in favor of freedom and constitutional rights – last time I checked that wasn’t a very PC attitude. Especially coupled with my status as a veteran. I’m also an advocate of Second Amendment gun rights, and that admission is probably going to get me in a lot of hot water with the “real” PC crowd around here. But I actually put on a uniform once and gave four years of my life to upholding and defending the Constitution. Maybe that’s my OCD.

    My side controls the schools – no, because I don’t have a side. I’m on the side of students and teachers, but they don’t control the schools either.

    If your kids are attending private schools, congratulations! Must be nice to have the means to put them into an ivory tower and protect them from all the bad people like my kids. Mine are attending OUSD schools. Montera and Skyline. And my sons probably won’t get to attend Ivy League colleges like your kids will. (I’m more worried about my older son with autism just being able to handle community college classes on his own.)

    My kids will have learned the common touch in public schools, though, and will be able to move through any group or class of people, and get along anywhere they go. If the “brave new world” you like to predict comes about, I seriously doubt that an elitist education will serve your children’s survival needs as well as having common ground with everyone they meet is going to serve my kids (and a decent education, too, even though it’s not their ticket to the aristocracy).

    The aristocrats were all excuted in the French Revolution. I’d expect something similar in a second American revolution.

  • Nextset

    Sorry Sue, The aristocrats are now heavily armed. And what’s more interesting, many of them were once wage earners. They (Aristos) are very good at protecting their interests. And we have the mortality tables to prove it.

    Another way to put it, just look who is going to get away with all the bail-out money…

    What you think of as elitism I want all children to be able to compete for, regardless of the section of town they live in. A good public school (relatively) free of trash. Kind of like SF’s Lowell High.

    We’ve staked our ground here. Always a pleasure talking with you.

  • John

    Sue: As the religion (symbol) expert on this blog, what are your thoughts on the scriptural admonition to “abstain from every appearance of evil?”

    It must be difficult for a “small” religious community like yours to be possessed of a symbol that gives the “appearance of evil.”

    Because ones religious affiliation, like certain other types of affiliation, can be a private (even secret) matter I won’t ask you to identify yours. But I sure am curious!

  • Katy Murphy

    Interesting discussion. I can’t help but notice — and this is not meant as criticism — that none of the 17 comments above have related to the issue of violence involving girls.

    Anyone care to trudge back to the main thread and respond to that?

  • rocky

    Ok — not related to girls specifically, but when I read the blog post, I thought to myself, if that was my kid that got jumped I would press criminal charges against the students that hurt her. Explusion would be just one of the problems those mean girls would be dealing with….. they would need a lawyer or two. So. Then I thought, I wonder why I never hear about the cops getting involved in these sorts of situations? Isn’t a crime a crime regardless of where it happens?

  • Katy Murphy

    In this case, two of the girls were detained by police on suspicion of battery. They were later released to their families, pending a court hearing. I don’t believe charges had been filed as of yesterday.

  • Tracy

    Hey Katy-
    My kids wrote some very bad ass letters to President Obama-Looking forward to see if he replies.

  • Nextset

    Katy: I agree that Girl violence is most problematic with Gang involvement. And most dangerous. Gang violence is harder to forecast, more calculated. The provocations may be invisible to school staff who as a rule are never trained in gang operations.

    There is no way to run a safe campus with these people resident. Their presence also raises the risk of deadly force attacks off campus against students and staff that may not be visibly connected to what happened at school. Attacks may also be carried out by strangers apparently unconnected to something that actually happened at school.

    Girl violence is bad enough but when mixed with gang culture it has a far higher level.

  • Sue

    John, I’m going to presume that your references to “scripture” are about the Christian Bible, since that is the most common usage of the term in our culture. But I’m not a Christian, so I’m clearly not qualified to comment on the contents of their holy book.

    “Say nothing of my religion; it is known to myself and God alone. Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life; if that has been honest and dutiful to society, the religion which has regulated it cannot be a bad one.” – Thomas Jefferson

  • Sue

    Yours is a good point Katy, but I can’t add anything to the discussion of *girl* violence – other than a couple of grade school stories of slapping a “mean girl” across the face and walking away, when I just couldn’t take any more bullying. Since I never slapped the principal’s daughter, the bullying didn’t end for good, but I didn’t get into much trouble either.

  • Sue

    Nextset Says:
    November 18th, 2008 at 4:02 pm
    Sorry Sue, The aristocrats are now heavily armed. And what’s more interesting, many of them were once wage earners. They (Aristos) are very good at protecting their interests. And we have the mortality tables to prove it.

    I believe the pre-revolution French aristocracy was also much better armed than their peasants, and that aristocracy was also very good at protecting their interests with one result being they too had much longer lifespans than the common people of their time.

  • Nextset

    I was just noticing an article about primary public school consolidation outside of the Bay Area and was thinking that the closed campuses might just become new Charter Schools. People vote with their feet.

    And I was thinking on the girl violence thread and a spillover into the public school campus closure issue. Years ago my paralegal complained to me that her then grade school kids were having problems with unruly/violent children – minority children – in her then urban school. She moved to a rural area and by some magic the kids just happened to wind up in an essentially all white school district.

    That district snaps the whip on the kids and doesn’t tolerate unruly behavior. The kids that don’t fit in are removed to an alternative school where perhaps they can do whatever they want. So I haven’t heard any more complaints about fighting. Why the difference in attitudes on child rearing between the minority dominated district and the white district?

    So are we now at the stage where minority schools don’t keep the lid on the violence and the white schools do? What does this do for the black kids and their socialization into mainstream society?

    My parent’s generation has relatives who were school principals of segregated (all black) primary and secondary schools. As a child I visited them at work. OK they were rather heavy handed (as were their teachers). But their schools were orderly – very orderly. After Brown vs Board of Education the public schools were (somewhat) integrated and they still ran their schools in what today would be seen as an autocratic way. And the violence was kept out.

    They were not overly concerned with free expression – it was a school not a gutter or a jungle. And they had ways of getting rid of people they decided were bad apples.

    If a school cares about it’s students they are not going to have a dangerous, violent, dirty, unruly campus no matter what racial issues exist. I am of the opinion that the black kids specifically, not to mention all the others, are not cared for enough at Urban Public Schools.

    Maybe it’s because of who runs the respective districts.

  • John

    Regarding girl on girl violence: The parents of irresponsible violent girls need to clip their fingernails and toenails nails and require them to wear plastic retainers over their teeth (except during lunch and supervised detention). They should also be required to carry thin wallets instead of purses.
    The parents of responsible good girls, often the victims of irresponsible violent mean girls, should have crew cuts or wear bathing caps over bunched up hair (to avoid pulling/yanking injuries). Thick clothing would help protect against scratch marks. Instead of riding to school on a bus, the parents of nice responsible girls should collective hire a Brinks van & driver to take them to and from school. Their personal belongings, especially lunch money & masquera, should be carried in a military ammunition belt with lock snap compartments. Every good girl should be “chipped” and their daily itineraries tracked by GPS monitoring.


    The good girls could be bused to a school in Orinda, Moraga, Lafayette, or Walnut Creek.

    Give peace a chance!

    Now I’m gonna do a Sue and drag a family member into this discussion! During a milder time my sister sometimes got mildly picked on by other girls so my parents enrolled her in judo school where she learned to use her weight against others instead of letting them use it against her. She excelled at sumo and could push a high percentage of the (judo class) boys out of the contestant ring before they knew what hit or pushed them. She specialized in head locks. No one messed with my sister after that! She attended Laws Judo School on upper Lakeshore Ave. I think the owner died of natural causes, unless my sister got to him first.

    Disclaimer: Sis, if you’re reading this thread please know how much I respect and appreciate you! Pleeeeeease don’t hurt me!

  • Nextset

    I had friends who enrolled their only child in an Urban School District. They also enrolled him in Karate School and he became a black belt before graduation after over 10 years in training I believe.

    He eventually left his high school before graduation because of specific threats to shoot him after some encounters with local gang members attending that school. There were other issues also. He did get the school’s diploma.

    I told the parents all along it was wrong to think that combat training alone could overcome a ghetto school environment. They told me they wanted him to be comfortable with all kinds of people. Well now he is very comfortable with druggies – his preferred companions. He’s declined to stay in college more than a few classes and works part-time at unskilled labor at age 22 and has never left home. Both parents were licensed professionals.

    Brave New World.

  • Susan

    I feel that being too strict is not the answer. I grew up in a part of the city of predominantly white students, and I did not see any type of disenrollment of trouble students. On the contrary, white parents would fickle over littel things such as homework or pressure.

    Alternative schools maybe be a good idea, but I doubt it will happen.

  • Sharon

    My two daughters attended a large OUSD middle school for six years (Bret Harte) and I worked as a Parent Coordinator at that same school for seven years until last February. My co-workers and I provided school-to-home communication and support to parents, including support in Spanish, Vietnamese, and Cantonese. Over the years, I had the opportunity to observe a great deal of student, and parent, behavior.

    One thing I noticed was that girls consistently write much more graffiti than boys on the walls in the bathrooms. The messages are much more nasty and aggressive towards each other, too. Sometimes a specific strain of graffiti would appear over a short period of time which would indicate an escalating conflict between students. If schools actively and routinely tracked this type of communication, I believe some conflicts could be headed off.

    Nextset’s grave and persistent warnings about gangs, their symbols, and their goals are absolutely valid. Rival gangs consider each other to be “mortal enemies.” There is too little information provided to parents and teachers by the district about this topic.

    As for Latino parents, they are oftentimes newcomers to Oakland’s urban culture who are working an excessive number of hours and who aren’t doing online research about US urban gangs in their spare time. They are naïve about the obvious signs which would indicate that their children are interested in gangs, and don’t truly understand the seriousness of it. Sometimes they suspect that something is going on, but they are too weak to confront their kids. Sometimes the parents are gang members.

    Of course, many other types of parents fall into a similar trap of failing to recognize danger signs in their children about all kinds of things, or failing to act on it if they do. The problem with the Latino gangs, as I see it, is that they are well-established, extremely organized, and highly aggressive. Search for Norteno or Sureno on YouTube and find out for yourself.

    One reason why the comments here may have gone off track simply demonstrates an intensity of concern, triggered by a sentence in the original article. There are few places for the gang-informed members of the community to express their concern about what is going on these days. A clear, proactive approach to this increasing problem is not presented to the community by OUSD for our reassurance. I can tell you with certainty that many school staff, teachers and parents are clueless. The high turnover at schools contributes to the problem.

    Last April I attended a special gang awareness workshop because I am interested in this topic and how it is impacting the school climate in our public schools. If you are interested in reading a summary of that presentation, it can be found at

  • Katy Murphy

    I just saw a report in USA Today that deflates the mean-girls-are-getting-meaner notion. New U.S. Department of Justice data shows a decline in the number of teen girls (under 18) arrested for aggravated battery.

    From the USA Today article:

    “We’re not facing an epidemic of girls gone wild,” says J. Robert Flores, chief of the department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which spent $2.5 million on the first U.S.-funded effort to explore girl delinquency.

    Read the full story here:


  • Catherine


    Is it getting better or are police just not arresting but detaining and releasing?