After years grappling with the pain suffered by young girls beaten up with bruising words and dirty looks, Judy Fiermonte was compelled to write a public plea for kindness.
But the longtime Santa Rosa therapist never anticipated that the essay she submitted to The Press Democrat calling for an end to "the hidden culture of aggression in girls" would produce such an outpouring.
Dozens of school principals, teachers, counselors and parents e-mailed Fiermonte thanking her, sharing their own stories or asking for tools to deal with a problem whose clinical name -- relational aggression -- is only slowly beginning to seep into the popular culture.
The outpouring gives voice to a sticky social problem that has existed at least since the drawing rooms of Jane Austen's day. But the old slam books and bathroom graffiti of 50 years ago have been replaced by the high-speed, anonymous tools of the Internet that have made it possible to shred a reputation with a keystroke.
"It really impacts learning," Fiermonte told parents and educators at a workshop on the issue Saturday. "You can't learn when you're freaked out about what is happening socially."
The results can be devastating -- or worse. An 18-year-old Ohio girl hanged herself last summer after an ex-boyfriend disseminated nude photos of her and after other girls began verbally harassing her.
Samantha Frias of Rohnert Park said even at 18 she found herself a target after reconnecting with a boy she once dated. His current girlfriend had his passwords, got her contact information from his computer and organized a campaign of electronic hate mail from girls she'd never met.
"It was all over MySpace. They even got my cell phone number. Sometimes I would get off work and have up to four voicemails on my phone and one went so far as threatening . . . 'We know where you live so watch your back little girl.' "
Frias said her work with Circle of Friends, an empowerment program for girls 10 to 14, gave her perspective and helped her not lose her sense of self-worth. But it still was so distracting she failed two classes her first semester at Sonoma State University.
Six years ago, a pair of best-selling books, "Odd Girl Out" by Rachel Simmons and "Queen Bees and Wannabes" by Rosalind Wiseman, pulled into the public square a long-hidden world of social aggression. Both books noted that while boy bullies more commonly use their fists, girls, who are more verbal and highly attuned to relationships, frequently use words, manipulation and body language to target another girl's friendships or reputation.
It's subtle and hard to sort out and because it leaves no visible bruises or blood, it often flies under the radar of adults. When adults do become aware, they're often at a loss how to intervene.
"There is a very intricate web of who said what to whom and when. And the original insult that starts the whole ripple effect is often very, very deep, involving alliances that are often widespread and ever changing. That's why it's hard to pin down," said Maxine Reagh, principal of Robert L. Stevens Elementary in Santa Rosa.
The books on girl aggression spawned movies such as the popular "Mean Girls" starring Lindsay Lohan. Both authors went on to write more books and develop workshops, programs and curricula aimed at empowering kids to work out their differences with healthier communication and to feel better about themselves, so they don't get engaged in cruel dramas.