Girls Kill Teenage Schoolmate
The waterfront park where Reena Virk was viciously beaten and left to drown looks like a Canadian dream: clumps of trees dot one shore, while attractive middle-class homes line the opposite bank. Residents of Saanich, just north of Victoria, know the place as a handy getaway for jogging, boating and family outings. But like many suburban parks across the country, it has two faces. After dark, it becomes a haunt for restless local teenagers looking for a place safe from prying adult eyes. Here, kids can engage in the typical rituals of an adolescent Friday night - exchanging gossip, smoking, maybe having a drink or making out - usually without incident. So it probably wasn't surprising that the 14-year-old Virk agreed to go off to the park with a couple of acquaintances on the night of Nov. 14, even though she had been in a nasty fight with some of their friends slightly earlier. On that occasion, another teenage girl stubbed out a lit cigarette on Virk's forehead, apparently over suspicions that the Grade 9 student had spread rumors about her. "She very much wanted to belong with the cool kids," recalls her friend Molly Pallmann. "That's because a lot of kids would bug her - I would see her crying in the hallways. Unfortunately, that led to her being killed. She was a sweet kid."
The horror of what happened next has sent shock waves across the country and attracted attention as far away as Sweden. Although some of the details remain unknown, it is clear that Virk was lured to the park at about 10 p.m. by two teens she met while hanging out at a convenience store a few blocks away. Once out of sight of passers-by, she was set on and so viciously kicked and beaten that she suffered multiple fractures, including fractured arms and a broken neck and back. According to a sister of one of the accused, she cried out, "Help me, I love you," during the assault. When her partly submerged body was found more than a week later, a few hundred metres from where she was attacked, a few scraps of underwear was all that remained of her clothing.
Eight teenagers aged 14 to 16 - seven of them girls - now face charges ranging from second-degree murder to aggravated assault, and Canadians are asking themselves some painful, seemingly unanswerable questions. Why was a young girl, with no history of violence, viciously murdered, allegedly by her peers? Why is violence among young girls sharply on the rise? And what, if anything, can be done to halt the trend? Sibylle Artz, Director of the School of Child and Youth Care at the University of Victoria and author of Sex, Power & the Violent School Girl, believes that too often, such cases are dismissed as the actions of a few bad eggs from dysfunctional families. But the behavior of many young girls, Artz suggests, is being twisted by profound cultural pressures their parents barely understand. Pressures to be sexy, to be popular - to be powerful. And when conventional methods of achieving those goals fail, more and more girls are turning to violence. "They are taking the attitude that the way to reach power is by being like males," Artz says. "If they can't get what they want, they become enforcers for the group. It's an ugly and painful thing."
That, many Canadians might respond, is an understatement. While the overall numbers remain small compared with boys, police are charging vastly more girls with violent crimes than they did 10 years ago. Since 1986, two years after the Young Offenders Act became law, assault charge rates for girls in British Columbia alone have more than tripled, rising to 624 in 1993 from 178 that year. And while not all experts agree that more crimes are actually being committed - some argue that public concern over youth crime is pushing officials into making more arrests - many say there is little doubt that common and aggravated assaults are on the increase. "Except for murder, I'm convinced that things have gotten worse," says Ray Corrado, a professor at Simon Fraser University's School of Criminology. "The context of the violence has also changed. It's more random, more vicious - and it's not just in the bad parts of town."
Corrado cautions against jumping to the conclusion that violence among young girls is widespread. The vast majority do what young girls have always done: attend school, pursue hobbies, flirt - without getting into fights. And even among the minority who are violent, murder, Corrado notes, "is still incredibly rare." But he says there is a visibility - as well as an element of unpredictability - to teenage crime that can create a strong sense of intimidation among teens themselves. Often, such crimes occur or germinate in highly public places such as transit stops, 24-hour convenience stores, parks and malls. When tensions rise - among girls, a fight can be ignited by as little as a slight over appearance or competition for a boy - things can get out of hand very quickly. "It starts with kicking and punching and they all want to be part of it," Corrado says. "Then they panic."
Often, the fever seems to rise because of boys. To a chilling degree, many very young girls are desperate to be mated. Sue Johanson, a Toronto-based television sex therapist, has found that young girls are becoming much more aggressive in the pursuit of boys, inundating them with calls, letters, whatever it takes to get their attention - but with decidedly mixed results. "I have more guys say to me that the only reason they had sex was because a girl came on like blockbusters and it was the only way to get rid of her," Johanson says.
They go by their "mall" names of Fila, Crystal and Kat, and violence is something they accept as part of adolescent life. All three have scars on their wrists from suicide attempts; each talks about the importance of control in lives that, for the most part, are clearly out of control. The three hang out at The Storefront, a drop-in centre in the Marlborough Mall in northeast Calgary that offers counselling, job placement help and family services, as well as a place where kids can shoot pool, play a few arcade games and watch TV.
"There's a pretty big reason for violence among girls," says Fila, 15. "It's got to do with dominance and what you believe is yours. Usually it comes down to our boyfriends. First you threaten - 'Don't touch him or I'll kill you.' And if that doesn't work you fight." Crystal, 16, and Kat, 15, say that clothes are also a flash point. There is even a hierarchy of most desired brands - Nike, Fila and Adidas. Kat says clothes matter because they reflect status and membership. "It's about belonging. You want to be part of a group, a gang. It's like your family," says Kat, who is in Grade 10. As for violence, Crystal says, "people don't listen if you say it nicely, so you have to put it bluntly and threaten them. And if that doesn't work, what comes next is to fight."
Fila, Crystal and Kat all profess the same tastes when it comes to music and movies. They love rap: their favorite singers are Puff Daddy, Mase and the recently murdered Tupac Shakur. "We like the black men and the words. They've got perfect bodies and they've got attitude," says Fila. "Yeah, and they're half-naked," adds Crystal. "They're risky. They've got this I don't care attitude, I'll just be who I am." The same kind of tastes are reflected in the movies they like, all based on gang life, such as Gang Related.
Although statistics in Calgary show no growth in the total number of violent crimes involving young girls, police say the level of threats and violence is increasing. On Nov. 21, a group of five 15- and 16-year-olds confronted four other girls between the ages of 12 and 14. Two of the younger girls were assaulted at a transit stop, one punched in the face and the other threatened that she would be thrown from the train platform if they did not give up their jackets - one a Nike, the other Le Château. As of Oct. 31, there had been 16 violent offences involving adolescent girls this year. Last year during the same period, there were 22, and in 1995, only seven. "There clearly is more violence being shown by young girls than was the case years ago," says Staff Sgt. Dan Dorsey. "I left the streets in 1988 to work major crime, and when I came back this year, I could see there are far more female young offenders than was the case 10 years ago."
Dominance, control and the sanctity of the group: they are powerful motivators. And for adolescent girls, who often suffer a calamitous drop in self-esteem with the onset of puberty, a punch-up or two may seem like a small price to pay for being part of the gang. Seventeen-year-old Jaime Denike, who attends Gladstone Secondary School in east-end Vancouver, says that among teenage girls there is strength in numbers. "In a lot of instances, it will be one girl against one girl, but all their friends will end up getting involved," she says. Adds 15-year-old Zoe Verbauwhede: "Every single thing becomes a big deal." The Gladstone students agree that problems between teenage girls often arise from the intense need to conform. "In school, nobody can really be themselves," Verbauwhede says. "They'll be left out. So people try to act cool." Some teachers and students have been trained in conflict resolution techniques, contributing to a relatively safe environment at Gladstone, but the girls also say there is still an unwritten code not to snitch on peers - much like many of the Saanich students who did not report Virk's murder despite widespread rumors. "No one wants to be a rat," Denike explains.
For those who are inescapably different, life at school can mean unrelenting misery that eventually deteriorates into habitual violence. Marie, 16, speaks bitterly of the Oshawa, Ont., school where she was harassed from the age of 8 because of her thick glasses and short, round body. Such treatment can be particularly devastating for vulnerable kids, like Marie, who come from troubled families and have spent time in foster care. For the past four months, she has spent many hours each day wrapped in a mangy sleeping bag, sitting on Yonge Street outside the Evergreen teen drop-in centre in Toronto's downtown core. Although she is five months pregnant, most nights she perches over hot air grates on city streets: she has been kicked out of all the local shelters because, as she says, her "roommates would start fights and I'd finish them."
Although Virk appears, at least on the surface, to have been a fairly normal schoolgirl, there are hints that she was caught in a similar, downward spiral of plummeting self-esteem. Some of her friends have acknowledged that she was self-conscious about her weight, and others have pointed out that she chafed under the rules of her parent's household - both are Jehovah's Witnesses of East Indian origin. About a year ago, she ran away from home and was placed in foster care. And earlier this year, her father Manjit Virk was charged with two sex offences against his daughter and one count of uttering threats. All three charges were stayed last August, and the teen later recanted; last week her family said the charges were false, made by their daughter in an attempt to gain more freedom by being relocated to a foster home.
Many prosecutors and social scientists caution against easier treatment for girls than boys. Halifax Crown attorney Catherine Cogswell has become impatient with such an approach. "What's facing the system is how to get out the message that violence is wrong and to not deal with girls with kid gloves," she says. "I have seen parents, police officers, social workers and judges be more lenient because the case involves a girl. I have walked away and thought, really, this is sexist."
A sampling of recent Halifax-area cases vividly demonstrates the casual viciousness girls are capable of. In one recent incident, Cogswell recalls, a teenager stabbed her friend with a knife, puncturing her lung. By the time they got to court, neither could remember what the fight was about. And last year, when four boys gang-raped a classmate, a group of teens - including girls - stood by cheering. At the trial, one girl referred to the attack as "no big deal." According to her, "these things happen at school all the time."
Whatever the reasons, some teenage girls clearly are experiencing acute - at times uncontainable - levels of anger and are showing far more willingness to strike out. Researchers and clinicians are also discovering a chilling lack of empathy among young girls - a quality that, until recently, appeared to be more common among adolescent boys. Miriam Kaufman, a Toronto pediatrician and author of Mothering Teens: Understanding the Adolescent Years, says many girls she counsels seem devoid of even a basic moral sense. "It's as if right and wrong are not even part of their experience or vocabulary," she says. Such detachment appears to have been very much present among some of those charged in Virk's death: according to the mother of one of the accused, her daughter is a habitual troublemaker utterly lacking in remorse. "If you don't like this person, beat them up. Whatever you want you can have," she says, describing her daughter's mentality.
According to June Larkin, a professor of women's studies at the University of Toronto who was also an elementary schoolteacher for 20 years, girls still feel trapped in gender stereotypes, despite 30 years of feminism. Many formal barriers to women may be down, she points out, but support for girls in non-traditional roles still remains weak. The result, she says, is that "if girls can't get equal, they'll get even." That attitude may pervert the notion of true equality, but it is hardly surprising, Larkin adds. "With few other options, it's to be expected that some girls will adopt the violent behavior of dominant boys," Larkin says. She notes, however, that such tactics are almost always used against other girls. Boys, she says, are far more difficult to overpower and, in general, are impervious to insults. Girls, on the other hand, are deeply enraged by verbal attacks. Ironically, she notes, sexual put-downs, like "slut" or "whore" - the traditional language of sexism - are particularly popular with violent girls.
But according to many who work with distressed young girls, there is another, equally disturbing reason for their growing love affair with violence: parental neglect. Carey MacLellan, an Ottawa lawyer who frequently defends female young offenders, believes that parents must take much more responsibility for their children. Starting with the current obsession over clothes - wearing the right, usually high-priced jacket or shoes - parents should stop encouraging children to conform to peer ideals that are based on money. "There is a real nexus now between the clothing, gang behavior and crime," MacLellan says. "I think parents have to take responsibility for that - they are the ones paying for it." MacLellan also faults adults for failing to set limits, often rationalizing that they have no way to exert authority over their kids: "I have children calling their mother 'bitch,' and the parents just sit there. I have to walk away." MacLellan is also deeply concerned about the nonchalance he sees in many teens. "These kids, no matter what their behavior, have no fear of repercussions, none."
They may not, but many of the 800 people who packed a memorial service for Reena Virk late last week certainly did. During his remarks at the service, Witness elder Richard Toews called Reena's death an "incomprehensible tragedy." The brutal slaying, he added, is a reminder that big-city crime can just as easily lurk in smaller cities like Victoria, no matter how blissful they appear. And that is a warning that might well be sounded in almost any community across the country.
Power and Sex
Sibylle Artz, director of the University of Victoria's School of Child and Youth Care, recently published Sex, Power & The Violent School Girl, a book about girls with histories of violence. She discussed her findings in an interview:
Maclean's: Is there a profile of a typical violent girl?
Artz: She probably smokes, drinks and experiments with drugs. She has very likely been subjected to physical violence herself or witnessed it, and she is at high risk for having been sexually abused. She very often has a troubled relationship with her father, who has emotionally abandoned her and is overcontrolling and physically violent. And she probably has a mother who is dominated by such a man. She has a vision of males and females that is rigidly traditional: although she does believe that women can be equals, her notion of equality is quite distorted. She sees equality with the men in her life as having the same ability to beat someone else up. And her notion of femaleness is that, ultimately, the way to be powerful is to be a very good sex object.
Maclean's: Why has violence in young girls increased over the past decade?
Artz: It's definitely being fuelled by the binding together of sex and violence that is so present in advertising, in the hard-rock and hard-core rap music these kids gravitate towards. It becomes a kind of mantra and it goes into their minds straight through the earphones. I was so floored by who the girls I talked to chose as their female idols: Madonna, runway supermodels and Marilyn Monroe, whose image they see as a way for women to be powerful, which comes down to being sexually alluring and attracting that male gaze. And the girl who can attract the most male attention tends to take control of the female group.
Maclean's: So these problems, in part, arise from pop culture?
Artz: Yes, but there are certain kids, who because of trauma in their life, seem to be attracted to images of power because they are probably seeking some kind of safety or security. And they gravitate towards other kids who see gangs as glamorous. They usually do not have formal gangs, but they group together and form a group mentality. In some cases, they see that as a substitute for family. Then they become honor bound to follow the codes they develop, which are very crude. That's always been the case, but we haven't always flooded the minds of children and adolescents with images of sex and violence - that has really, really escalated in the past decade. I see the same thing in studies from all over the Western world, whether it's from Iceland or Germany or the United States. What these kids have in common is fashion, music and pop culture idols. The kid in Iceland and the kid in Victoria want to wear the same kind of jeans, and that is new.
Stabbings, Beatings: An Unsettling Record
Reena Virk's death in Saanich, B.C., was not an isolated act of violence involving teenage girls. Some other cases:
» In London, Ont., police charged a 13-year-old girl with attempted murder last week after a nine-year-old boy at Princess Elizabeth Public School was stabbed in the neck with a knife. Police gave no explanation for what sparked the attack. The girl also faces two counts of assault with a weapon in another incident involving two of her 13-year-old female classmates.
» In October, an early-morning argument broke out between two men in separate vehicles on Montreal's South Shore. At an intersection, the men jumped out and began fighting. Police say one man's 17-year-old girlfriend stabbed the other man in the back three times.
» On July 2, a woman died after being shot in the head at her home in Boucherville, Que., following her 50th birthday party. Her daughter, 17, was charged with first-degree murder.
» On March 10, a 70-year-old grandmother died after being stabbed repeatedly in the head and neck with a kitchen knife at her home in Buckingham, Que. The woman's 13-year-old granddaughter was charged with second-degree murder.
» In February, 1996, a 14-year-old Winnipeg girl allegedly assaulted a 16-year-old girl. Police say she was attempting to coerce the older teen into prostitution.
» In December, 1995, Alexis Bonilla, a 17-year-old pimp who belonged to the Latino Assassins gang, was ambushed, beaten and drowned in a creek in Burnaby, B.C. Three girls were charged - two were 14, the third 16. Two pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. The third teen was acquitted.
» On Oct. 26, 1995, Sylvain Leduc, 17, and three other teenagers were abducted by members of Ottawa's Ace Crew gang and confined in a Nepean, Ont., apartment. Leduc was tortured to death; the others survived. One woman, then 17, was charged with first-degree murder. Three adults also face the same charge. Three teenage gang members, meanwhile, have already been convicted of lesser charges, including kidnapping and assault.
» On July 8, 1995, Kulwarn Dhiman, 34, picked up three teenage girls in Calgary. According to court testimony, after all four drank together for hours Dhiman tried to force one girl to perform oral sex. He was stabbed to death. Two girls, both 14, were convicted of manslaughter.
» In May, 1994, a 14-year-old Mississauga, Ont., girl took part in a botched robbery attempt in which a midnight stroller, Brian Harris Baylen, 44, was stabbed to death. Her 16-year-old friend, Clifford Arnold Long, stabbed Baylen in the back first. Then the girl plunged a steak knife into his back as well. The girl, a victim of sexual abuse, was convicted of manslaughter. Long, tried in adult court, was sentenced to eight years.
Maclean's December 8, 1997