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.