A Voice for Youth


  When Rebecca Petersen first started interviewing incarcerated female gang members more than…

Georgia (Sep 19, 2012)


When Rebecca Petersen first started interviewing incarcerated female gang members more than 15 years ago, she was surprised to learn that most of the girls were “jumped in” or beaten into their gang rather than “sexed-in,” as most previous studies had concluded.
She was also struck by how gang membership defied racial paradigms.
“One of the first girls I interviewed was white,” says Petersen, who was then working on her Ph.D. dissertation at Arizona State University. “She was part of the ‘Crips’ in Tucson, Ariz., a gang associated with blacks. This struck me as odd as it defied every stereotype. But she lived in a black neighborhood and told me she joined the gang that was part of her neighborhood.”
Petersen’s dissertation spawned an interest in studying gangs that she has pursued throughout her academic career. Now an associate professor of criminal justice at Kennesaw State and coordinator of the criminal justice program, Petersen’s interest in female gangs — and in matters of juvenile justice and delinquency — has followed her all the way to suburban Cobb County.
And she is still making discoveries that defy stereotypes.
In suburban Atlanta, Petersen says, she expected most gangs to be African-American, as blacks are the largest minority in the metro area. However, her “biggest surprise” when she moved here in 2003 was discovering that the majority of gangs were Hispanic.
Petersen was raised in middle-class Overland Park, in suburban Kansas City. In her school, there were no gangs and very few racial minorities. “Everybody was white, and lower, middle or upper-middle class,” she recalls. Growing up, Petersen wanted to be a teacher. But she also wanted to be a police officer because she loved Sergeant “Pepper” Anderson, the police detective played by Angie Dickinson in the 1970s TV hit “Police Woman.” So she later earned a Ph.D. in criminology.
Before coming to Kennesaw State, Petersen taught at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she was coprincipal investigator on a three-year, $875,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate intimate partner violence among Mexican-American adolescents. To find subjects for her research, the team used “snowball sampling,” a technique that relies on chain referral, which is used by researchers when potential subjects are “hidden” or hard to locate. They would meet the girls at restaurants, and in their homes, but most frequently at the office. Petersen found that as one moves farther away from the center city, there are fewer gangs. However, they do exist, even in the suburbs.
When she moved to Cobb County nine years ago, Petersen says she expected to find gangs here. “The majority of gangs in Cobb are in the southwest part of the county, touching Fulton County, where there are numerous apartment complexes, transient neighborhoods and a variety of cultural and ethnic groups,” she says, pointing out that this area also has the highest crime rate in Cobb County.
But gangs are not limited to the fringes, as urban and hip-hop culture has diffused into the suburbs. Petersen says they exist everywhere in Cobb County, in all high schools and middle schools. Though she has never become a police officer, Petersen is passionate about juvenile justice and about children and youth as victims and offenders. She has spent countless hours at juvenile detention centers, children’s emergency shelters and prisons. Petersen has taught courses in various criminology subjects at Kennesaw State, including research methods, juvenile justice, criminology and corrections. She also has collaborated with KSU’s Center for Sustainable Journalism’s Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (JJIE), a daily online publication that covers juvenile justice issues. “Sexual victimization of boys and girls, that’s really my passion of teaching and research, being a voice for our nation’s young people,” she says.
Last fall, when news of the Penn State child sexual abuse scandal surfaced, Petersen took to the JJIE to write about how we all have a moral obligation to report the sexual abuse of children. She teaches her students that while certain people, such as physicians and child welfare personnel, have a legal obligation to report abuse or suspected abuse, everyone has to report it, even if someone chooses to call 911 anonymously and/or from a pay phone. “You are required to report suspected child abuse,” she tells her students. “The question of who has a moral or ethical obligation is moot.”
-- Aixa Pascual


A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu