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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 But the old slam books and bathroom graffiti of 50 years ago have been replaced by the high-speed, anonymous tools of the Internet that have made it possible to shred a reputation with a keystroke.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.

At the same time, earnest efforts to teach schoolyard civility are undermined by a corroding media culture that glamorizes gossip, glorifies girls with attitude and revels in "catfights," whether it's "Desperate Housewives" or so-called reality shows such as "The Apprentice."

"I call it 'sassy pants.' It's cool to be sassy, and it's cool to be mean and hurt other people," said Amy Chevrolet, director of Circle of Sisters, which is funded by St. Joseph's Health System. It conducts weekly sessions at nine elementary and middle schools in Sonoma County.

Schools and school districts in recent years have incorporated programs to combat bullying in all its forms. A number of Santa Rosa schools have Community Matters, which selects student leaders not for their GPAs but for being well-liked and having the respect of their peers, and trains them to look out for any mean behavior.

But such programs do carry a price tag the school district can no longer afford, leaving it up to individual schools to fund it if they choose through parent associations or campus allocations, said Larry Haenel, a retired Montgomery High English teacher and member of the school board.

Despite heightened awareness, the problem persists, abetted by cell phones and social-networking sites that make it easy to digitally ridicule, harass, gossip and spread rumors instantly and anonymously.

"It's like road rage. It's easy to be a jerk in your car as opposed to one-on-one, face-to-face interaction or confrontation," Chevrolet said.

"They'll take pictures with their cell phones in locker rooms or bathrooms and post pictures on MySpace or Twitter it out to a bunch of different people. Or they'll post mean comments." Another trick is for a group of girls to entrap another girl online into saying something bad about another girl, not knowing that girl is on the other end reading what she writes about her. Wars erupt.

While the program offers a broad curriculum, every day, she said, "someone feels left out, someone is feeling bullied, someone is feeling unsafe, someone is feeling depressed around relationship issues." Adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable as they undergo massive changes while pushing away from their families and gravitating toward peers.

"It's a rocky time for girls, and relationships are so paramount. If a relationship is not going well, a girl's whole world is turned upside down. It impacts their ability to do well in school," Chevrolet said.

Melinda Valazquez has undertaken relational aggression as part of her master's research in organizational development at Sonoma State University. In doing research at area schools she found educators are aware of the problem but feel they don't have the time or funding for staff training or programs.

She was inspired to step forward to help with Fiermonte's group based on her research and personal experience. Even at 33, she feels the scars from her eighth-grade year when, after a misunderstanding with a friend, she became the victim of a social targeting campaign at Rancho Cotate High in Rohnert Park that permeated every part of her life, left her completely isolated and affected her schoolwork.

"I realized a lot of the issues I had as an adult woman stemmed from insecurities that came up at that time," she said.

While many experts and educators and even parents maintain that covert aggression is far more common in the culture of young girls, boys are not immune.

The Ophelia Project, a national organization based in Erie, Pa., had its roots in the work of therapist Mary Pipher, whose 1995 book "Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls," started a national conversation about the social and cultural pressures faced by teenage girls. It has since made relational aggression a cornerstone of its work and expanded its outreach to boys.

"Boys start catching up language-wise with girls at about fourth grade, and we start to see more of those kinds of language-based social behaviors coming out in boys. I have the pleasure of being able to talk to students in schools all over the country, and sixth-grade boys are reporting it as much as sixth-grade girls," said Christine Linkie, director of school programs and program development for The Ophelia Project.

Its CASS (Creating a Safe School) programs, among other things, she said, use peer mentoring and monitoring to shift the burden from teachers to students to create their own culture of acceptance and inclusion.

Cyber-bullying however, has emerged as a significant problem with kids of both sexes.

"It's part of what's going on in their brain at that particular time in life. It's very easy to click that 'send' button when you're in an emotional state and you can't see the target of your actions," she said.

Former IBM executive John Halligan criss-crosses the country on a crusade to put a face on cyber-bullying for kids who think it's cool to be covertly cruel on the Internet. At school assemblies, he relates the story of his 13-year-old son, Ryan, who committed suicide in 2003 after several years of relational bullying that came to a head after a girl, who pretended online to like him, publicly humiliated him both in front of her friends and by sending out private instant-message exchanges.

The new high-tech weapons create a much bigger audience, making it far worse for today's kids than the note-passing and slam books of old, said Halligan, who was instrumental in getting a bullying-prevention law passed in Vermont that broadens the definition to include relational and cyber-bullying.

He says the key is reaching out not just to victims but to the bullies themselves, who frequently have serious problems of their own, and to the conflicted bystanders afraid to speak up lest they become the next target.

"I don't think there is any silver bullet to this, but I'm very hopeful," he said. "I believe every kid has a heart, and we need, sometimes, to show them the right way."

Staff Writer Mary Callahan contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com.

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