Teenagers from hell

Popular films, and a rise in families without a father, appear to be factors in an alarming trend towards young female violence. Glenda Cooper reports

Paint and excrement were daubed on the teacher's front door. Petrol was spread over her drive. Hate mail and death threats were posted through the letterbox and stones were thrown.

Such a hate campaign would be terrible no matter who devised it. But it acquires a shocking resonance when you discover that it is eight girls scarcely into their teens who are alleged to have carried it out.

All have since been suspended from the school , considered to be one of the best schools in Scotland, and are facing police investigation. The headteacher claimed that there was not a discipline problem, and his pupils were "decent" boys and girls.

Girls have always been cruel, as anyone who endured a girls' school can testify. Psychologists have conducted studies showing that they make much more effective bullies than boys, because they have superior understanding of the way relationships function and thus can devise subtle ways of torturing their victims.

Surely it wasn't always like this? Take off your NHS specs; it always was. Even in that distant Angela Brazil world there were always the Imogens, the Gillians and the Olgas whose cruelty left you terrified.

What is different is that young women are moving away from the traditional weapons of verbal torture, poison pen letters, and social ostracism. There are indications that schoolgirl Flashmans are adding physical violence to their repertoire.

The charity Kidscape has seen a "marked trend" in calls to its help line about girl bullies. It received 80 reports of violence in 1993, which had risen to 119 by 1995, varying from kicking and pushing to one group attack in which a girl was pinned down in the showers by classmates who pushed a bar of soap into her anus.

Sometimes the consequences of girls' violence can be even more severe. Last year in Corby, Louise Allen, 13, was set on by a group of girls "like a pack of animals" and kicked to death after she tried to break up a fight. Two girls were found guilty of her manslaughter last December.

Worryingly, the think-tank Demos reports that in the 15-to-17 age group, girls are more likely to take pleasure in violence than boys, suggesting that we may have a new generation of female aggressors in the making.

But who can blame them? All around them girls see an increase of violent female images. Doris Day is supplanted by Sharon Stone. Thelma and Louise, Single White Female, Basic Instinct and Heavenly Creatures, all featuring aggressive, powerful females, were huge successes on the wide screen.

Added to this is a prevailing culture of aggression that makes girls think they have to be tough to survive, plus an increasing number of broken homes that leave girls without a father to take on the protective role. Is it surprising, then, that the conclusion girls reach is that sisters have to do it for themselves?

More confidence and self-esteem at school - girls outperform boys all the way to A-level now - may well have released latent aggression in these young women. The message to go and get what you want has become twisted to read: "kick everyone who gets in your way".

Girls' lives have been transformed by increasing equality with boys, but the price we have paid is that they seem to be taking on the darker aspects of male behaviour. Until we convince them that violent machismo is no good for either sex, playgrounds could become increasingly violentn

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