My latest book, The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate, was released a few weeks ago and is the featured title on the publisher’s home page.
It is now available online at:
Lately, there has been a spike in the number of hits on my posts about the 2008 murder of Larry King by classmate Brandon McInerney. At first puzzled why there was this renewed interest, I learned about HBO’s recently aired documentary, “Valentine Road.” I then sat down to watch it – with some trepidation. I hoped HBO had done a professional job of presenting the facts and raising the many core issues of the case. They did. It was an accurate and non-sensationalized exploration of the circumstances of Larry’s murder and the legal and social aftermath. Through videos, interviews with those involved – family members, friends, teachers, lawyers – and using court and police records, we see the polarization in the community over who was to blame and the agony of how to impose punishment.
The two boys: Fifteen year-old Larry was openly gay and cross dressed, Brandon was straight. Larry was multi-racial, Brandon was white. Larry was small with a slight build, Brandon was tall and athletic. Larry lived in a group facility for abused children. Brandon lived with his father and grandfather while his mother was in rehab for her drug addiction.
The basic facts of the incident were straightforward and undisputed: On February 12, 2008, fourteen year old Brandon McInerney brought a loaded gun to E. O. Green Middle School in Oxnard, CA, got up from his seat in the computer lab, stood behind his classmate, Larry King, who was sitting at a computer, and shot him twice- point-blank-in the back of his head. As Larry fell to the floor, Brandon dropped the gun and fled the school. Larry died two days later and Brandon was charged with first- and -second degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, and a hate crime. The district attorney was trying him as an adult and a conviction of first-degree murder carried up to a life sentence with no parole.
The case finally came to trial three years later and after nine weeks it ended with a hung jury. The members of the jury had no doubt Brandon had premeditated and carried out Larry’s murder. Their issues were over the fairness of trying a just-turned 14-year-old as an adult and the perceived circumstances that “drove” Brandon to take such a violent and permanent solution to a problem.
The mitigating factors proposed by the attorneys revolved around Larry’s increased use of make-up and dressing in girls clothes, the unappreciated open crush he had on Brandon and their unpleasant interactions, the growing tensions between the two, the lack of teacher and administrative interventions in the obviously escalating conflict, accusations of bullying and harassment by both parties, and Brandon’s state of mind when he shot Larry. Other factors on the jury’s mind were: the family backgrounds of both boys, which included foster and institutional care, physical and emotional abuse, family violence and parental drug use; the easy availability of guns; and the role of a local hate group.
After the mistrial trial, Brandon was again charged as an adult for first degree murder. To avoid another exhausting, contentious trial, Brandon pleaded guilty to second degree murder and manslaughter and was sentenced to 21 years in prison. At the sentencing, conflicting Save Brandon and Justice for Larry buttons were pinned to the sea of onlookers.
What do you think? Would there have been a hung jury and so much public support for the killer if the circumstances were reversed and Brandon was the boy who was bi-racial and the boy who was gay/transgendered and dressed like a girl? Was Larry’s murder a hate crime? Should a 14-year-old who commits an adult level crime such as lying in wait to kill someone, be tried as a juvenile? How much weight should mitigating factors such as family life and bullying have in assessing blame and assigning consequences?
Watch “Valentine Road” on HBO GO, (Valentine Road Trailer), read my schoolclimate.com blog posts as I followed the case, read what others have written, look at the thought-provoking Valentine Road Discussion Guide, and most importantly, think about what we can do to avoid such a the tragedy in the future.
Bullies target those they see as different, feel superior to, and feel power over, and every child has a right to be safe and to learn and prosper emotionally, psychologically, and socially. But history shows that we need to fight hard for human rights. Recent legislation by almost all states that compels schools to protect students from bullying acknowledges the power of legal remedies to bring about change. This is especially true in the case of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students who are bullied more than any other group and are not yet protected by civil rights legislation.
In my book, Story Power: Breathing Life Into History, I included a timeline of women’s rights to illustrate their journey. Progress was painfully slow until laws were finally enacted that gave women equal rights in all areas of their lives. If you ever doubted the value of legislation that protects targeted groups from discrimination, read through this timeline.
Put yourself on the timeline and see where you fit in the legal evolution of women’s rights.
(This timeline is not all inclusive. There are many other milestones in women’s history.)
1776 Declaration of Independence claims all men are created equal.
1789 US Constitution ratified and goes into effect.
1848 1st Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, New York.
1861 The American Civil War begins – fight for women’s rights put on hold.
1865 Civil War ends; Reconstruction begins.
1866 Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony form the American Equal Rights Association dedicated to the goal of universal suffrage.
1868 14th Amendment to the US Constitution gives all male citizens the right to vote.
1870 15th Amendment to the US Constitution says the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. (Sex not included)
1878 The Woman Suffrage Amendment is first introduced in the US Congress: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
1893 New Zealand first country to give women right to vote.
1903 National Women’s Trade Union established for better working conditions.
1917 Russia gives women right to vote.
1919 My father is born.
1920 19th Amendment gives US women right to vote; National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) becomes the League of Women Voters.
1921 My mother is born.
1923 The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) first proposed to Congress.
1940-45 WWII Propaganda campaign to get women to work in typically male jobs.
1951 I’m born.
1956 Number of women in the work force up from 8.5 million in 1947 to almost 13 million.
1959 American Medical Association sanctions birth control for the first time.
1960 FDA approves “the pill.”
1963 President’s “Commission on Status of Women” finds women discriminated against in almost all aspects of US life.
1964 Title VII Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in employment by race or gender.
1970 Congress approves the Equal Rights Amendment, first step toward adoption.
1972 ERA sent to states for ratification.
Title IX becomes law: no one can be discriminated against based on their sex in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance.
1973 Rowe v. Wade – women’s right to choose abortion – upheld by US Supreme Court.
1977 My first child is born.
1976 Nebraska adopts the first law making it illegal for a husband to rape his wife.
1979 My second child is born.
1986 Supreme Court rules sexual harassment on the job is sex discrimination.
1992 American Association of University Women release their report, “How Schools Shortchange Girls.”
1993 Violence Against Women Act passes: acknowledges domestic violence and sexual assault as crimes.
2001 American Association of University Women releases “Beyond the ‘Gender Wars’: A conversation about girls, boys, and education.”
2009 Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act passed.
2012 Affordable Care Act requires insurance plans to include coverage for birth control without a co-pay.
GOP and Democratic platforms differ on contraception and abortion.
ERA not yet ratified by a three-fourths majority of US states.
It has been a while since I’ve posted a new blog. Everyday life happens, and sometimes what you think will be a simple, straightforward topic turns into a research project. (Look for a future post on the unhealthy art of sarcasm.)
But nothing gets everyone’s attention like a mass shooting of innocent people going about their everyday lives. The people of Colorado and the rest of the world are trying to wrap their heads around the mental and physical effort that went into a systematically, finely-calculated plan to kill people as they watched a movie.
On the “violence continuum” this is off the chart, an extraordinary, disturbing act by one individual. It shatters our sense of the safe haven– places where we can just be that we count on as being secure. Incidents of mass gun violence re-energize heated arguments about access to guns, a critical constitutional issue over which Americans constantly wrestle, often to little avail. But below is link that gives everyone a chance to come together and take positive action. No matter where we stand on Second Amendment rights, we should all be able to agree there is no place in our society for machines designed for no other purpose than to massacre. And while we work jointly to ban these assault weapons, we can work on fixing our culture of violence.
Fixing our culture of violence-one that is pervasive, not extraordinary – especially as we try to teach our children to choose peaceful ways of living, is lost in the blurring immediacy of a deadly tragedy. We call the incident senseless, but is it any more senseless than a child being taunted for the way she looks, or being excluded from the group because she is poor or has special learning needs, or being harassed and assaulted for being gay? From one end of the violence continuum to the other, it is all senseless, and physically and emotionally scarring. This everyday violence is where we need to focus. We have remarkable control over our homes and schools. We create the climate and culture that define what is right and wrong. We can make sure these are safe havens where adults model and children practice peaceful, respectful, and compassionate ways to treat each other.
Sure, make a commitment to ban assault rifles in our society, but also make a commitment to consistently model, teach, and expect non-violence in our schools and homes.
Most states ban the use of corporal punishment in U.S. juvenile correction facilities and in the prison system. Yet nineteen states still allow the use of corporal punishment by school adults against students who misbehave, break a rule, have a bad attitude, perform poorly in schoolwork, or do something that annoys them. It is even harder to understand the thinking behind this when we discover that ten of these nineteen states that allow students to be disciplined physically, paradoxically prohibit corporal punishment in their penal systems! How can this be so? They do this with the blessing of the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1977, ruled that the Eighth Amendment of the Bill of Rights only protects convicted criminals from cruel and unusual punishment, not students confined to a classroom. (State-by-state analysis of the legality of corporal punishment in the US)
Not unlike prisoners, students are a confined audience at the mercy of those in power. They are vulnerable to whatever their classmates and adults dish at them. Thankfully there is a growing awareness of the frequency and harm of bullying and harassment, especially of certain groups of students. In recent years, many states and school districts have enacted laws and implemented policies that prohibit such abuse. We acknowledge that we owe our students a school climate that is safe and nurturing.
Much of a teacher’s influence on her students comes from modeling, often unintentionally, and we ask teachers and principals to intentionally model what they expect from their students. In addition to the moral and ethical questions of adults hurting children, paddling is not compatible with the understanding of how children learn. Corporal punishment does not model positive social skills, is not a deterrent, does not teach better behavior, and it does not improve academic performance. Paddling teaches our children that adults have the authority, power, and right to abuse them, emotionally and physically, when they are frustrated, angry, or believe we ought not spare the rod. It erodes students’ respect for adults and their belief in non-violent ways to solve problems, and fans disenfranchisement and rebellion. And disturbing is the knowledge that it is administered disproportionately toward the most vulnerable of our children. The US Office of Civil Rights reports that students with disabilities and African American children are paddled at twice the rate of the general school population. The poor, disabled, and racial and ethnic minorities are the overwhelming targets of this sanctioned school violence.
School violence of any kind sickens the climate and has a negative effect on students’ attitudes toward themselves and others, and their academic success. When adults inflict the violence it is an even more egregious abuse of physical and positional power. So how can we justify sitting by while adults discipline students by hitting them?
As we outlaw bullying in schools, we have a chance to extend these protections even further, to all children on a national level. The hope lies in our vigilance and support of the “Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act,” HR 3027 introduced in Congress on Sept 22, 2011 by NY Rep Carolyn McCarthy.
Learn more about the topic and how you can help eliminate corporal punishment in America’s schools.
Corporal Punishment in U.S. Schools http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1915820,00.html#ixzz1tjOIc6ML
Huffington Post blog post “Corporal Punishment in American Schools — Teaching Through Terror?”
It intends, at least on paper, to provide each child with an opportunity to become a successful, self-sufficient adult and citizen. Theoretically, an educational system open to all is a way to ensure that life circumstances – who you are, where you were born, the educational level of your parents, and your social and economic standing – do not determine your future chances for a fulfilling life. This is the heart of a meritocracy, a system in which advancement in society is based on individual ability or achievement, not on wealth or birthright. The premise is a simple one: the choices you make, especially how hard you work in school, decide your future.
So on paper a meritocracy in the form of a public school sounds ideal. Most Americans believe we have such a system, and that it serves everyone equally and well. But considering the realities of American society, this was and still is naïve. The premise is fundamentally flawed because the playing field was not and is not level, and the opportunities were not and are not equal or equitable.
Throughout our history, different levels of government and powerful people were able to control who went to a certain school, who went to school at all, and even to make it illegal to teach slave children how to read and write. Classmates were selected and rejected by gender, race, ethnicity, mental ability, and behavior. With groups separated into somewhat homogenous groups, the need to learn tolerance and acceptance of those we saw as different or of a lesser status or ability was minimized. This segregation maintained a status quo of separate classes – the privileged and under-privileged, the powerful and powerless – and undermined the concept that schools and society were meritocracies.
Public education policies and laws did evolve over time as people spoke out forcefully about human rights issues and wrongs were corrected. Yet the system is still not perfect: education funded according to the tax base of each district results in widely disparate per pupil expenditures that favor the well-to-do and economically healthy areas, and bias and discrimination against certain groups influence the assessment of individual potential, academic expectations, opportunities available, discipline used, and hopes for the future.
But people and governments may no longer intentionally segregate schools or classrooms by race or social status and children with special learning and behavioral needs now have the right to a placement in the least restrictive learning environment. Every child has the right to a free and appropriate public education regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. And they all have our promise that they will be treated respectfully by the adults and students in their school.
There are competing cultural forces at work that again challenge the basic premise of schools as a meritocracy, where all are welcome and offered the same opportunities. The influence of religion in politics and on social issues and public policy has grown at the same time the federal government, individual states, and local school boards and communities have made a moral and legal commitment to build public schools that are safe havens. In these schools, discrimination and violence of any kind, including exclusion, bullying, and harassment, are not tolerated by anyone, against anyone, or for any reason.
This raises the question of the role of religious beliefs in an institution that by law and mandate must welcome, teach, and protect every child who comes to the schoolhouse door. May students deny basic human rights to those who do not share or reflect their religious beliefs, especially in the case of sexual identity? Are students whose religion teaches that homosexuality is immoral excused from showing respect and tolerance toward their gay, lesbian, transgender and bi-sexual peers? Can they discriminate against, refuse to work with, or bully students they do not approve of?
I believe the answer is no, they may not, the same way a student may not let his personal or his parents’ beliefs about race, ethnicity, political leanings, etc. affect how he treats his classmates. The code of conduct for proper behavior applies to everyone.
The strength of the public school system of the 21st century is that it more clearly guarantees that every child can expect the school to protect his rights regardless of perceived or real differences, or religious or social beliefs held by others. This is how we keep the public separate from the private, the secular separate from the sectarian, and public schools open and welcoming to the everyone.
My latest book, The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate, was released a few weeks ago and is the featured title on the publisher’s home page.
It is now available online at:
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In an Edutopia op ed piece, Rutgers’ professor Maurice Elias asks us to go beyond merely promoting children’s social and emotional development, to being active champions who speak out against injustice. Elias, and my new book on school violence, ask that we pay consistent attention to the “subtle and not so subtle instances of harassment, intimidation, and bullying” that span the violence continuum and erode the trust students and parents have in us and in the educational system.
The goal of safe school climate initiatives is to create a climate (feeling) and eventually a culture (practices) where students’ civil and human rights are protected, everyday, by everyone, and in all situations. In this nurturing environment, emotional and physical safety are the driving forces behind everything we do in our schools and classrooms. This commitment to preserve the dignity of all students, to advocate for them when they have no voice, in turn provides children with the safe haven we owe them.
And most importantly, as Elias points out, once we start acting as a vocal, consistent champion for our students, there is no turning back. We will never again be able to ignore injustices and turn away as our students suffer. The obligation to speak out will be part of our personal and professional belief system and our commitment to doing what is right.
With this new resolution – a sincere promise we make to ourselves on behalf of our children – all students will prosper academically, socially, psychologically, and emotionally.
* For more information visit the George Lucas Educational Foundation at Edutopia, “a place of inspiration and aspiration based on the urgent belief that improving education is the key to the survival of the human race…not just the vision for this new world of learning but the real-world information and community connections to make it a reality.”
I’ve seen the cover and love the way it illustrates the concept that violence is behavior that hurts others and also an abuse of power, and that it can be subtle or obvious, physical or emotional. What our children face in school is skewed toward the subtle end to the mid-point of the continuum, and the damage is serious whatever form it takes.
The jury in the nine-week trial that ended in September 2011 could not come to an agreement about Brandon McInerney’s guilt. While there was no question that Brandon brought a gun to school and then carried out his plan to shoot Larry King, the jurors had a difficult time convicting him of the first degree murder charge – with a special circumstance of lying in wait and a hate crime enhancement – and accepting the mandatory 50-year minimum sentence the charges carried.*
The District Attorney is again applying the lying in wait charge, which means Brandon will be tried as an adult in his second trial this November. His attorney and family, a few jurors from his first trial, and some community members are pressing for a charge of voluntary manslaughter, a charge which would allow him to be tried in juvenile court with the possibility of getting out of prison in 14 years.
Many factors complicate what would seem like a straightforward case: Larry King was openly gay and may have shown Brandon unwanted attention; Brandon expressed a dislike for gays and had an interest in White supremacy; the school administrators knew of and failed to act to prevent further escalation of the tension between the two boys; and the question of whether a cold-blooded, premeditated murder committed by a 14-year-old is the act of an adult or of a child.
With some compromising between the District Attorney’s Office and the McInerney’s, a plea deal may be reached making a second trial unnecessary. But regardless of what happens, each of us still has to address the issues of discrimination, bullying, and harassment in our schools, and implement thoughtful, yet definitive, violence prevention and early intervention strategies and policies.
*For background on the case and perspectives on the first trial, check out my earlier posts.
One week ago today, Jamey Rodemeyer, 14, committed suicide. Jamey was harassed in school and through social media for being gay. In one online video he tells us, “They’d taunt me in the hallways, and I thought I’d never escape it.” For strength Jamey embraced the message of Lady Gaga’s song, “Born this Way. ” It became his personal anthem and she became his idol. His death hit her hard and she’s now calling for a movement to make gay bullying a crime.
Legislation seems to be the only way to curtail – we never completely stop – discrimination and acts of hate. For schools, federal civil rights laws already prohibit discrimination and harassment against certain groups in programs or activities that receive funds from the US Department of Education. The law makes discrimination based on race, color, and national origin, sex, disability, and age against the law in every state, in every educational institution.
These groups are members of a protected class of Americans. It’s clear who is missing from this list. Lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender (LGBT) students, 90% of whom report being bullied in school, have not yet been identified as needing legal protection. Yet research continues to confirm that gay-bashing of students is a widespread and common occurence.
In October 2010, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This expanded the 1964 Hate Crimes Act to include crimes motivated by sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity.
But is bullying in our schools a crime? Not unless it escalates into physical violence and threats of bodily harm that break the law. This leaves schools free to treat acts such as taunting, name-calling, rumor spreading, stalking, and cyber-bullying, which lie toward the middle of the violence continuum, however they see fit.
Publicity about suicides has increased our understanding that school staff are responsible for keeping the climate of their schools free from hostility and harassment. Schools are now advised, and in some cases required by state law, to treat such incidents seriously and to respond quickly and definitively.
But as history teaches us, without the authority of a federal law that identifies those who are LGBT as a protected class, the way students are treated will be hit or miss, helpful or harmful, and too often left to cause emotional and psychological damage.
If Lady Gaga and the rest of us continue to bring attention to the issue, we might just pass a new civil rights law that protects gay students.