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Patricia McGuire Headshot

A Dubious Equality

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And so it's come to this in our centuries-long struggle for women's equality: a girl can murder her roommate with as much viciousness as any beer-fueled frat boy.

How many readers had the same first reaction to this headline on washingtonpost.com: "Bowie State student fatally stabbed in dorm; roommate charged with murder." I confess that my immediate thought was, "There go those drunken men again." Of course, I thought the victim was female, the traditional collegiate murder story line. George Huguely allegedly murders Yeardley Love.

Wrong. For the second time this year, we've learned to our sorrow that college women can be just as homicidal as college men. At Bowie State, the alleged knife-wielding murderer was a young woman who stabbed her roommate to death in front of other suitemates. This crime comes only months after Tina Stewart, a 21 year-old basketball start at Middle Tennessee State University, died allegedly at the hands of her roommate. 18-year-old Shanterrica Madden is charged with that murder.

What's going on here? Didn't the script say that college women are the kinder, gentler side of the campus, the diligent organizers of rallies and parties, good students who only want to be taken seriously for their brains and not harassed for their bodies? Did we ever imagine, in all of those years fighting for Title IX (the law that requires equal opportunity for women in education) that we'd also reach some dreadful gender equilibrium in the human capacity for violence?

We have watched the Amanda Knox trial from afar, perhaps thinking that her alleged participation in the murder of her roommate in Perugia, Italy was an aberration, an exotic consequence of study abroad.

Now this, in our own backyard. Are young women suddenly becoming more violent?

Our romantic notions about women's supposedly placid personalities are delusional. The lives of girls in 2011 traverse territories as bloody as their brothers. The tendency to perceive "disrespect" and to demand retribution is universal among today's youth.

Aggressive and violent females grab headlines. A video of two young women attacking a transvestite in a McDonald's near Baltimore went viral over of the summer, while images of girls fighting on a Philadelphia Septa bus or Washington Metro train fill the evening news. Whether young women are becoming more violent, or violent female behavior is becoming more public seems like so much academic hair-splitting when promising young lives drain across the desolate ruins of uncontrolled rage.

My academic musings bowed to utter sorrow upon learning the identity of the victim at Bowie State: Dominique Frazier was a D.C. Achievers Scholar, a recipient of a scholarship through the D.C. College Success Foundation where I am a board member. The Gates Foundation funded the D.C. Achievers Scholarships to promote the life-changing opportunity of a college education for students who might not otherwise be able to dream of collegiate success.

I did not know Dominique personally, but I know many young women like her --- my university, Trinity in Washington, counts more than 50 D.C. Achievers among the 1000 students in our women's college. The D.C. Achievers Scholars come from some of the most challenging neighborhoods in the city, the neighborhoods "east of the river" in Wards 7 and 8 where poverty and violence repress so much potential. The D.C. Achievers are students of great ambition, courageously choosing college over the many negative social forces that try to hold them back. For such a student to prevail over the conditions of her neighborhood only to lose her life in the place she thought would propel her to her dreams --- her college campus --- is an unspeakable tragedy.

Alexis Simpson, who allegedly stabbed Dominique Frazier in a dispute over music in the room, supposedly shouted as she ran away, "You don't know what I've been through." While we may not know specifics, she was surely neither unique nor likely the only one suffering anger and anxiety in that room. But she chose to act out her anger with a savagery that shatters the glittering image of the collegiate ivory tower remote and secure from the forces of real life.

Students bring the baggage of their lives to college --- they may unpack the bedding and clothing and televisions, but the germs of anger and suspicion and hurt remain lurking in the folds of their possessions. We know too well that many college students today --- women as well as men --- manage anger and settle disputes with physical violence rather than observing the niceties of dispute resolution processes. It's no secret that mental health services are among the fastest growing parts of collegiate administration today.

So, even while mourning for Dominique, I am plagued by the question: what can I as a college president do to prevent such horror from befalling my own students? At Trinity, we have zero tolerance for fighting of any kind. We dismiss from residence any students who fight, threaten, intimidate or harass others --- including those who do so on Twitter and Facebook. We have layers of services engaging scores of devoted staff and faculty delivering counseling and advising and intervention and healthcare and spiritual support and disciplinary procedures. We will re-examine and strengthen our intervention procedures based on our study of the Bowie State case, as we do after every such incident elsewhere. With a long tradition as a Catholic women's college now serving a majority of African-American and Latina women from the city, we feel a special calling to do everything possible to help these lives realize their full potential as strong, confident, mature and successful adults.

And yet, with the power of all of that standing behind me, I feel almost powerless in the face of this tragedy. My heart goes out to Dominique's family and to the family of Bowie State. And I wonder about Alexis Simpson and how anyone could have discerned the murderous demons lurking in the folds of the luggage she dragged into that room at Bowie.