As the Director of the Center for Girls and Young Women, I am deeply disturbed by the recent remarks of Charles T. Epps, Superintendent of the Jersey City Schools. On April 13th, Epps announced to a group of interdenominational pastors that the girls of Jersey City are responsible for the community’s problems.
“Our worst enemy is the young ladies,” he said. “The young girls are bad. I don’t know what they’re drinking today, but they’re bad.” Just as disturbing, it seems that no one in his audience spoke up to disagree.
How can we empower our girls to succeed when public leaders place the blame for societal problems squarely on their young shoulders? Rather than assigning blame, Epps should be addressing the challenges and traumas that can cause young women to begin a pattern of difficult and even dangerous behavior.
Young women are the fastest growing segment of the juvenile justice population, and their juvenile justice involvement is a result of circumstances distinctly different from those of males. Research demonstrates that up to 92 percent of the girls in the juvenile justice system are victims of physical or sexual abuse. Yet policies and procedures focus overwhelmingly on punishment, often further traumatizing girls who have been pushed into the system by victimization. As a community leader, Epps should understand that many troubled girls suffer in a system that lacks the knowledge and resources necessary to serve their needs.
NCCD’s Center for Girls and Young Women is working to reform social and juvenile justice systems that have failed to meet the specific needs of girls and young women. The Center is listening to girls across the country, identifying their real concerns, and working with juvenile justice practitioners to find ways to address their needs. As we do so, we need public leaders to help us change a system that is failing young women who deserve treatment and support – not vilification and blame.
The time has come for our leaders to take responsibility for protecting young girls and providing them with the tools they need to succeed. Instead of tearing them down further, Superintendent Epps – and all of us – should support our girls and help them to thrive.
Lawanda Ravoira is the director of the Center for Girls and Young Women, a division of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD).