Monthly Archives: August 2011

More on the McInerney trial

Monday, August 29 – jury deliberates  with no verdict yet

Given that the incident was in a neighboring Ventura County school district, the interest in my area of the country has been particularly keen.

But the murder of Larry King was also the cover story for the July 18, 2008 edition of  Newsweek Magazine, “Young, Gay, and Murdered.” You can go to to see the cover and read the story.

Before the jury is in…

As I write this, the jury is deliberating the fate of Brandon McInerney, 17, accused of first-degree murder – with a hate-crime enhancement – of his classmate, Larry King.

I decided to write this post before the verdict is in.  After eight weeks of testimony, which included gang and hate-group experts, classmates, teachers, and evidence of Brandon’s abusive family life, the question is not whether Brandon killed Larry, but whether it was premeditated first-degree murder precipitated by a hatred of gays.

The chilling incident happened on February 12, 2008 in an Oxnard, CA middle school. Brandon McInerney, then 14, brought a gun to school with the intent of shooting Larry King, a 15-year-old openly gay student. Brandon claimed he was bothered by Larry’s unwanted attention and during the first period of the day, while sitting in the computer lab, he walked up to Larry and shot him twice in the back of the head.

I will say up front that I do not believe there is any validity to the defense’s claims that Brandon was pushed into this heinous act. Larry was not responsible for Brandon’s actions, regardless of whether or not his behavior toward Brandon was inappropriate. Bullies and their targets are never justified in taking violent measures to settle a problem.

This case is especially important to me since the role of school climate is a contributing factor. I have followed the case closely and find some evidence troubling, especially with the current recognition that gay bashing and harassment are a problem for young people, and with the increased emphasis on a school’s direct responsibility to protect its students from harm. If what the teachers and others who testified say is accurate, so much went wrong with the way the administrators handled the situation that there is a good chance the tragedy could have been avoided. If they had recognized the seriousness of the situation and made some swift interventions, it would likely not have changed Brandon’s biased views, but it would have changed the behavior of both students. It isn’t a matter of second-guessing. Rather it is about applying basic principles and beliefs to the way the school is run.
Here is my assessment of the forces at play as the situation escalated:

  • Larry had a right to express his sexuality and dress as he pleased, as long as this did not interfere with the learning of other students. This is the legal precedent for determining if, for example, a student’s clothing (such as a t-shirt with Hitler on it or one with profanity or threats), or any other form of display is disruptive and therefore unacceptable. As with all legal assessments, it is a subjective determination specific to the situation, and requires thoughtful consideration
  • But Larry did not have a right to sexually harass Brandon with suggestive comments, the same as a straight student cannot taunt or make suggestive comments toward another student.
  • Teachers testified that they recognized the seriousness of the threats Brandon made about hurting Larry and they knew that Larry was acting inappropriately toward Brandon. The potential for violence was a foreseeable problem and they asked for something to be done. They felt it was time to intervene.
  • The administrators and school social worker or guidance counselors needed to listen to the teachers and step in to counsel both Larry and Brandon – separately of course – and advise them that their behavior was inappropriate and would not be tolerated. Their parents should have been called into school. It was the missed opportunity to diffuse the situation.
  • If the two students knew the administration and teachers were aware of their conflict, and that they were keeping an eye on them, I think both would have backed off. It would also have been helpful to have teachers, who had a positive relationship with each of the boys, check in with them regularly to keep them on track.
  • One of the most regrettable aspects of the case is that the administrators used poor judgment when they said there was nothing they could do, that they had to protect Larry’s civil rights. This is the unfortunate and all too typical non-response to what is seen as a delicate situation. They lacked the confidence and knowledge of the law – and the common sense- to intervene swiftly and thoughtfully, as they needed to do. If there was question about how to handle it, they should have asked for advice from their school attorney – every district has one.
  • The evidence was strong that Brandon had white supremacist beliefs, was involved with a neighborhood gang, and was intolerant of gays. One of the first warning signs of a child’s foray into the dark side of hate is to draw symbols of that hate. Brandon’s notebooks were full of them. He also expressed his homophobia to others.
  • I think the evidence presented proved that Brandon is guilty of both premeditated murder and of a hate crime. I did not see convincing proof that he was so angry and upset that he was in a dissociative state of mind and acted without full consciousness of what he was doing.
  • While Brandon is guilty and will face the consequences of his choices, a fair share of the responsibility for the escalation of the situation falls on the school administrators and a climate and school culture where this kind of behavior was not taken seriously.

If they are to achieve a comprehensive safe school climate based on prevention and early intervention, the adults in a school need to be vigilant observers who care about each student and intervene when trouble is brewing.

You can go the Ventura County Star for a chronology of the events of the case, and for the testimony and arguments presented to the jury. The LA Times is also a good source The case has been covered by major news organizations across the country and is being followed closely by gay advocates. Just search Brandon McInerney, who has now joined the small but infamous club of school killers.

I’ll let you know what happens.

Some Numbers to Think About

This following sampling of safe school climate statistics paints an interesting picture of what violence in our schools really looks like.

What does this information tell you?

How can you apply it to your everyday life as a teacher?

  • 628,200 students ages 12-18 were victims of violent crime at school in 2005.  (CDC 2008)
  • 90% of teachers surveyed felt it was their job to intervene when they witnessed bullying. (NEA 2010)
  • 76% of Americans say they have trust and confidence in public school teachers. (PDK/Gallup 2010)
  • 55% of  students said schools needed to increase teachers’ trustworthiness to improve student-teacher relationships. (NYCSS 2004)

  • 39 % of middle schools reported student bullying occurred at school daily or at least once a week compared to 20% for primary and high schools. (U.S. DOE 2011)

  • 160,000 students go home early on any given day for fear of being bullied. (CDC 2008)
  • 29% of students in 6th-12th grade said they had the social competence to plan and make decisions. (Search 2002)

  • 90% of the 7,261 middle and high school lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender students surveyed reported experiencing harassment at school in the past year. (GLSEN 2009)
  • < 2% of  homicides and suicides among 5-18 year-olds occurred at school. (NCES 2009)
  • 0% difference between the number of public and private school students ages 12-18 who reported being bullied at school. (NCES 2011)


Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN)

National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES)

National Education Association  Nationwide Study of Bullying (NEA)

New York Center for School Safety (NYCSS)

Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Annual Poll (PDK) of the Public’s Attitudes Toward Public Schools (PDK/Gallup)

Search Institute

US Department of Education (USDOE)

Building Trust

How do we build trust with our students, families, and colleagues?

The progression goes like this:

RespectI value you as a person.

EmpathyI feel what you feel; I see the situation from your prospective.

CompassionI think and act in ways that show I understand and care.

Trust…earned with respect, empathy, and compassion over time.

Positional Power + Empathy = Compassionate treatment of others

Start the year with a promise.

Make a promise to yourself and your students.

Start off  the year with a commitment to setting a positive school climate. Make it a part of your first day activities and integrate it into everything you do all year. Then consistently model what you expect from your students in all that you say and do.

At any grade level you can show students you care about them as individuals and as a group by sharing who you are as a person and asking them to share with you. Tell them what is important to you and what you appreciate and enjoy about teaching. Find out what is important to them in their personal lives and in school.

Talk about the roles students play in acts of bullying and explain the difference between tattling and reporting a genuine concern  they might have about themselves or something they see happening to another student. Let them know they can come to you if someone or something is bothering them, including  cyber-bullying.

In the elementary grades invest time in the first week to establish a positive classroom climate: brainstorm what it takes to get along and to be able to learn, and then develop the classroom rules together; write a simple code of conduct and have the students bring it home to share with their parents and guardians; give students the chance to share who they are through a personality box (*see below); create a violence continuum together that highlights the more subtle things children their age do to hurt each other.

In middle school, on the first day of class, take time with each section you teach to stress what you expect from them. Ask them what they expect from you, too. Create a violence continuum and deal with the issues of bullying and harassment right away. Make it clear that you care  about each of them, and that you will never tolerate them hurting each other emotionally or physically. Remind them that you are there if they need to talk.

In high school take time to establish your expectations for the year in each class and work to develop a rapport with your students. Have the students complete a violence continuum and define what a positive classroom climate looks like. Emphasize treating each other with care and respect – both you and your students. Tell them that no one should be the target of hurtful behavior, and that they can come to you with any problem or question, and you will take it seriously. Address hazing, provide cyber-bullying prevention tips, and state your policy about the use of social media in your classroom.

School administrators can apply these approaches when they communicate their expectations for positive social behavior and peaceful solutions to conflict  to their students, staff, and families. They should model what they expect as they interact with students in general and with those who are having problems, and with parents and staff.

What you do that first day will set the tone for the year and your follow through will establish a positive, safe classroom and school climate, and make school a better place for you and your students.

* A personality box is a collection of items that represent who you are as a unique individual. Students and their teachers fill a paper bag or shoe box (provide them in case students do not have access to one at home) with items that show what they like to do and what is important to them.  Then each gets the opportunity to share the collection with an appreciative audience – their teacher and classmates! Before sharing, teach proper audience behavior by asking students how they would like to be treated when it is their turn to present. This activity is especially beneficial to those children who are at the fringe of the classroom or school social structure; it is harder to victimize someone we know about and see as a real person with feelings. Personality boxes and similar activities go a long way in helping you set the emotionally and physically safe classroom climate your children deserve.

A hurtful experience or a safe haven?

Violence happens in our schools every day. We just need to recognize it.

When we understand that violence is a continuum of hurtful, abusive behavior from subtle to overt, we realize that our students are suffering emotionally and physically, and that many of them are doing it quietly. Children react to hurtful treatment in different ways: they might act out, stop trying to learn, skip school, become physically or emotionally ill, drop out of school, and hurt themselves and others. If we acknowledge the common and pervasive forms of violence that happen on our watch, we can meet our obligation to give children the protection and support they need to be academically and socially successful.

What do we do about it? The antidote to school violence lies in a comprehensive safe school plan that builds a healthy school climate. This climate embeds in the hearts and minds of our children and our school staff the ideals of empathy, respect, tolerance, and compassion. With such a focus, violence of all kinds is recognized and prohibited. We take it seriously and intervene when students are being ostracized, taunted, teased, bullied, or harassed.

My soon to be released book, The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate, will help individual teachers and whole schools define violence in terms of this range of hurtful behaviors, and then it will help them determine how and where their particular school needs to improve students’ experiences.

The resulting intentional effort we make to teach and model positive social skills as the foundation of everyday school life gives our children a safe place to learn. And it also teaches them to be good people in the process.

You can go to the Book: The Violence Continuum  page for more information about school violence and how you can change the climate of your school and classroom.

Ready to share!

It’s time to share my fascination with what we call “school climate.”

And it’s also time to show my respect for the unique role teachers and principals play in setting a positive school climate and motivating students to learn.

For the past six years I have focused my energies on thinking, researching, and writing about education. I pulled from my experiences as a classroom teacher, building  principal, staff development specialist, college teacher and supervisor of student teachers to write three books:

  • Teaching is a Privilege: Twelve Essential Understandings for Beginning Teachers (2009)
  • Story Power! Breathing Life Into History (2010)
  • The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate. (Release date November 2011)

The unifying theme of these books is my belief that we owe our students a safe school climate and an engaging learning experience. The climate of a school–how it feels to be a member of the learning community–depends on how each student is treated, by their peers and the adults. When children feel emotionally and physically secure, have a teacher who genuinely cares about them and teaches with enthusiasm, and they are given an active role in their learning, they will grow socially and academically into good people who know how to make healthy choices.

This what this blog is about: making our schools a safe haven and a challenging learning environment for our students. From pre-K to graduation, we need to systematically teach and model positive social skills and attitudes, and expect students to choose non-violent, respectful, and compassionate behavior.

I hope you find my blog thought-provoking and helpful in your safe school climate efforts and that you visit often.