Monthly Archives: December 2011

“Justice for Larry” – “Save Brandon”

No trial, no jury, no witnesses. Just a sentencing hearing.

In earlier posts I discussed the issues and controversies surrounding the shooting death of 14 year-old Larry King by classmate Brandon McInerney, and the subsequent trial and hung jury. Larry was openly gay and it bothered Brandon, especially when Larry teased him. It bothered Brandon so much that he brought a gun to their middle school and calmly shot Larry in the back of the head twice, as he sat unaware in the computer lab. It was clearly the premeditated murder of one student because he was gay and dressed in feminine clothing, by another student accused of acting on an intolerance of homosexuality. It was an extremely violent and fatal way to settle differences.

No one wanted the anguish of living through another trial and facing the possibility of a second jury unable to reach a verdict. Brandon was, once again, going to be charged with first-degree murder as an adult, the issue that caused the divide in the first jury. By accepting a guilty plea of second-degree murder, manslaughter, and use of a firearm, McInerney was sentenced yesterday to 21 years in prison instead of the life in prison sentence carried by a conviction of first-degree (premeditated) murder. Brandon is ineligible for parole and will be 38 when released.

Those at the sentencing hearing represented the multiple perspectives and human rights questions that plagued the trial. A handful of jurors from the mistrial wore “Save Brandon” bracelets and scarves while across the aisle Larry’s friends and family wore “Justice for Larry” buttons.

Yet, everyone can take away some essential understandings from the tragedy:

  • Yes, school really is a tough place for gay students, and they may need extra adult support.
  • No one-gay or straight-likes being teased or harassed, and they shouldn’t have to put up with it.
  • Parents, teachers, and administrators need to be on the lookout for tensions brewing between students. They need to intervene early and decisively before the situation escalates. They are the adults and they should know what to do.
  • Students, K-12, need to be intentionally taught and expected to show respect for others, regardless of whether they approve of or like the person’s beliefs, color, ethnicity, religion, learning needs, appearance, or sexuality.

We don’t need anymore Larrys and Brandons. And as you can see from the list, it is the adults that set the school climate and define what can and cannot happen in their school.

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Hazing-an excuse to abuse

Do no harm and allow no harm be done.

Before the recent scandals at Penn State and Syracuse University, I had started to write a post about the widespread hazing that is occurring in middle and high schools, especially in athletics. An article about a 14 year-old high school freshman beaten with a belt by six teammates while one coach observed and the other videotaped the assault, reminded me to finish my blog about the protected and privileged world of the athlete, and the tolerance for abuse shown by students and coaches.

What is hazing and how is it different from bullying?

Hazing is violence inflicted on students because they want to belong to particular group they consider of higher status. Tradition, peer pressure, and the desire for acceptance into the elite group, motivate students to put aside their self-respect and quietly suffer humiliation and physical danger. In contrast, bullying is random violence directed at someone who belongs to a group perceived as lower status or power, or at someone who appears defenseless.

How common is hazing?

Using a random sample of high school students throughout the country, a comprehensive 2000 study by Alfred University asked students to complete a confidential questionnaire on their experiences with hazing. 48 percent of high school students admitted being hazed by school groups. The highest percentage of hazing was in sports teams, gangs, and other social groups, but, surprisingly, it existed in almost all school groups.  They defined three types of hazing behavior: humiliation, substance abuse, and dangerous hazing. In this climate of condoned aggression and physical violence sanctioned as a tradition, it is no wonder that children are abused.

What does hazing look like?

Here is a small sampling of the kind of hazing violence reported in the U.S. Students were:

  • Spat on, hogtied, held in a locker and slammed into a wall.
  • Dragged across a muddy field then made to stand against a wall while soccer teammates kicked balls at them.
  • Beaten by ten athletes until bruised.
  • Roughed up, paddled, and then forced to box each other until they bled.
  • Restrained with duct tape.
  • Beaten and covered with mud, paint, feces and garbage; five girls ended up in the hospital.
  • Sexually assaulted with foreign objects.

Students are also subjected to: forced consumption of alcohol, tattooing, piercing, head-shaving, branding, sleep deprivation, physical punishment (paddling and “red-bellying”), and kidnapping.

In the real world these behaviors would be crimes and, with a new understanding of violence, they are starting to be treated as such.

Why do we allow it to happen?

We have developed a culture of status for certain groups and of looking the other way when they misbehave. Athletes have this special status, especially in the high-profile male sports like football, soccer, wrestling, and basketball. Sports teams provide entertainment, build school pride, and bring prestige to the school. It is not uncommon for schools and society to give them special dispensation for their violent behavior and when they break rules.

The attitudes of teachers, administrators, and parents who believe participation in sports is always a character-building experience perpetuate the treatment of the athlete as a privileged class. But being idolized, feared, admired, and envied for athletic skills and brute force do not build character. They breed idolatry and a sense of entitlement that lead to abuses of power and status.

How do coaches contribute to this culture?

Complicating the issue are coaches who condone hazing, and think breaking down an athlete’s self-esteem by verbally belittling him or handing out physical punishment is an effective way to motivate him to try harder. In this way, coaches openly model aggressive, bullying behavior.  Now as states and districts enact measures to reduce bullying by athletes, coaches who bully are under more scrutiny for their own violent behavior. They are being told to tone down their drastic discipline techniques and to no longer look the other way when one of their athletes bullies another student.

The Ohio State Education Department recognized the role schools play in the continuation of the tradition of hazing. Their efforts to stop hazing at the elementary school through the college level include an inclusive definition and strong condemnation of hazing and the adults who allow it. The code warns that any adult who “recklessly” permits hazing, or who has knowledge of the hazing and takes no action to stop the behavior is liable for civil action for injury and damages, including mental and physical pain and suffering. Adult culpability for what happens to their students is wake up call to all school and college staff.

Can we change tradition?

The students in the Alfred study were perceptive when they said it would be hard to stop hazing because it would take a breakdown of tradition, and that changing a culture is difficult. But we have repeatedly proven we can change the climate and culture of a school. We know that one of the most effective ways to do this is to take the stand that no violence, including teacher bullying of students or student bullying of each other,  is ignored or tolerated.

When it comes to hazing, schools have a direct supervisory role over the groups they sponsor and the obligation to keep participants free from emotional trauma and physical harm. We can reduce hazing abuses by educating students, families, and school staff, especially school coaches and extracurricular activity supervisors, and by enacting anti-hazing policies. Safe school climate efforts should send a strong anti-hazing message and make sure there is consistent follow through when it is reported, including appropriate school and criminal consequences. Coaches should also model non-violent character-building behavior to motivate their athletes, instead of perpetuating disrespect and aggression. And we should listen to our students when they say they want us to intervene to protect them, and that they would prefer positive initiation activities to build comradery and a feeling of belonging.

We can change the tradition of hazing.

We can do it by being clear about what is and is not tolerated, and then by holding everyone accountable.