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JOAN VENNOCHI

The lost girls

TWITCHY, disorganized, unfocused boys are the hot gender topic, illustrated by Newsweek's recent cover: ''The Boy Crisis."

But there's more than one gender crisis to talk about.

Locally, it is documented in ''Where are the Girls?" a report by the Girls' Coalition of Greater Boston.

Girls' health issues, ranging from depression to drug use, from girl-on-girl aggression to sexual activity, are identified as major concerns. The report also describes populations of ''disappearing" or lost girls -- girls who are on their own, without access to any service or after-school program to help them. They include middle-school and high-school age girls; girls of various immigrant backgrounds; low income girls; homeless girls; sexually exploited girls; those in the juvenile justice system; and girls who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, and bisexual.

''Where are the Girls?" also addresses some disturbing trends:

The number of female delinquents in Massachusetts more than doubled over the last decade. The overall arrest rate for girls in Massachusetts is growing. The number of black girls in the juvenile justice system is increasing.

Girls are increasingly violent with each other -- in and out of school.

The number of girls being sexually exploited through prostitution is rising rapidly in Boston, with 12 times as many cases of teen prostitution in the first nine months of 2005 as in all of 2003.

Kathryn A. Wheeler, executive director of the Girls' Coalition, hopes the findings, based on interviews with 24 leaders in youth programming and developmental psychology, will debunk the myth that ''all girls are doing well." Those at risk -- about 130,000 in Greater Boston -- are ''woefully underserved," she said.

Girls today, said Wheeler, ''are experiencing a very challenging and complex life that includes sexism, racism, homophobia, negative body image concerns, depression, and increasing violence. With the help of policymakers, funders, leaders of youth programs, and researchers, we can begin to address the critical needs of girls as well as reverse this legacy of disparity."

Unfortunately, in the world of pop culture and newsmagazine covers, the girls' crisis is yesterday's news. Books like Michael Thompson's ''Raising Cain" pushed adolescent male issues to the forefront. Attention to boys' academic needs is a priority of first lady Laura Bush's educational agenda. The Newsweek cover story picks up on the trend, reporting that ''by almost every benchmark, boys across the nation and in every demographic group are falling behind." In a local twist, a 17-year-old senior at Milton High School filed a federal civil rights complaint that contends the system discriminates against boys. Girls are rewarded for following rules; boys are punished for rebelling against them, complained the plaintiff, Doug Anglin.

Why are boys falling behind? Girls, of course. But not all girls. Gaps in academic performance exist not only between girls and boys, but also among groups of girls. Higher percentages of females and girls attend four-year colleges, but the high school graduation rate for Latinas is lower than for girls in any other racial or ethnic group.

A decade ago, girls' developmental struggles and strengths were the subject of reports like ''How Schools Shortchange Girls" and books like Peggy Orenstein's ''Schoolgirls." These works inspired new program and funding initiatives. But, according to the Girls Coalition survey, ''over the last five years, public and private interest in and funding for girl-specific programming has generally diminished."

In Greater Boston, 92 percent of foundation dollars go to coed programs; 6 percent go to programs for women and girls; and 2 percent go to programs for men and boys. Funding for women and girls peaked in 2000 and is on the decline. One local example: The Paul and Phyllis Fireman Foundation, which from 1997 to 1999 provided three-year grants to girl-serving agencies, changed its focus and now works to eliminate family homelessness.

Girls' advocates see a backlash against funding for girls' programming. They attribute it to the perception that ''the problem has been solved" and a mentality that ''if girls win, boys lose."

''Why can't we have a climate that encourages a look at the differing needs of boys and girls and addresses both?" asked Jerry Martinson, executive director of Big Sister Association of Greater Boston.

The quest for money and attention often pits one interest group against the other. It's a shame to have it happen when the interest groups are lost boys and lost girls.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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