Thursday, March 30, 2006

Princess Galloway’s days as a D.C. gang member began innocently enough: She and her childhood friends had birthday parties, talked about clothes and held sleepovers at one another’s houses.

“It was, like, a normal thing females do,” says Princess, 16.

As the girls grew older, the parties became nighttime outings to go-go clubs. Belts and bags were replaced by blades and bats as accessories. A girl gang was born.

“We started fighting when a different female gang from uptown jumped one of our friends,” says Princess, an honor roll student at Spingarn High School in Northeast who quit her gang after spending several stints in the Oak Hill Youth Facility for assault. “It just escalated. … It was a back-and-forth beef.”

Princess’ story is becoming common in the District, where officials say girl gangs wielding everything from baseball bats to ice picks are on the rise.

Female cliques increasingly are turning schoolyard spats into beatings and turf battles for respect, recognition and attention the girls don’t receive at home.

“In the last three years, female activity — as far as crews and gangs — has risen,” says Bridget T. Miller, coordinator of the District’s Youth Gang Task Force. “Nobody wanted to acknowledge it because they thought it was just a short trend, but they failed to realize how dangerous a female can be.”

Miss Miller says more than 270 girl gangs and crews operate in the District. The cliques often form in middle schools and center around neighborhoods, clashing over anything from fashion styles to being snubbed at clubs.

“People just hate,” says Coco, a 17-year-old who is trying to quit a gang centered in Rosedale in Northeast. “One person will bump you, mug you, put their middle fingers up to you, then we’ll start fighting. Fistfights, brick fights, bats — whatever they feel like they can whoop you with, they’ll get.”

Members — who include homosexual boys in some cases — sometimes color their hair a specific color. Although girl gangs usually don’t resort to guns, officials note clashes involving blades, bats and even stun guns.

“Girls are getting beat with crowbars, they’ve got knives, [they] get stabbed and cut,” says Ronald Moten, founder of the nonprofit Peacoholics, which is sponsoring a forum, “Saving Our Sisters,” in May at Howard University. “One girl got killed leaving a club in Southeast, a female got shot by another female.

“It’s changing; that’s why we got to nip it in the bud.”

Sharell Kyle, a former Anacostia High School student who now attends Trinity College, says her school basketball team brawled with rivals from Theodore Roosevelt High School and at least half of her friends have participated in girl gangs.

“A lot of it deals with following, fitting in,” says Miss Kyle, 20, who now works for Peacoholics. “Some youths don’t have nobody else to look at in their lives, so they turn to the streets.”

According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of female state and federal inmates grew 5 percent a year from 1995 to mid-2004. The number of male inmates grew by an average of 3.3 percent during the same period.

In the District, the number of Superior Court cases involving female juveniles increased from 445 in 2003 to 571 in 2004. The number of girls brought before the court for violent offenses jumped from 225 in 2003 to 322 in 2004, a 43 percent increase.

Officials say preliminary court numbers show a slight decrease last year, but the trend is disturbing.

“Women have become more involved in the system for at least a decade,” says Anita Josey-Herring, the presiding judge of D.C. Family Court. “We’re trying to get ahead of that before the problem becomes insurmountable.”

The court in January began its Leaders of Today in Solidarity (LOTS) program, which is staffed only by women and offers girls in the court system community supervision, guidance and support services. Juveniles in the LOTS program will be supervised by Judge Zoe Bush, who will be assigned to monitor their cases.

“A lot of girls get involved with gangs because they’re looking to be accepted by their peers,” Judge Josey-Herring says. “We’re trying to create a community … so these girls can understand they have a whole lot more to look forward to in life than being a member of a gang.”

Tiffany, a 17-year-old mother, says she quit her gang when her priorities changed.

“My baby’s father started saying, ‘You don’t need to be in that to prove yourself,’” she says. “[Now] when I’m gonna fight, I’m gonna fight for my son. It’s gonna be a good reason.”

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