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HBO explores the Brandon McInerney-Larry King murder

The Renewed Interest

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 Story

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 Court Case

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

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.

The Legacy

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.

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We have to fight to protect children’s rights

The unfortunate reality is we need legal protections to stop discrimination of targeted groups.

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.

My Timeline of the History of Women’s Rights in America

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.

McInerney murder retrial avoided

 Calif. teen pleads guilty to 2nd-degree murder in killing of gay classmate, faces 21-year term

Last summer the jury was unable to agree on a conviction of first degree murder or  involuntary manslaughter in the case of Brandon McInerney’s killing of classmate Larry King. Both were Oxnard, CA middle school students at the time of the shooting and of contention was the decision to try Brandon as an adult. Brandon was ready to be retried, again as an adult, when today the Ventura County Chief Deputy District Attorney announced Brandon had agreed to a plea bargain that will avoid the ordeal of a second trial. I could hear the collective sigh of relief from the people of Ventura County.

If there is any good to come from this tragedy it is that minds are more open to the realities of school life, that harassment of gay students is all too common, and that school staff and students are better prepared to intervene to stop the emotional violence of teasing, taunting, and name-calling before it escalates into overt physical violence.

For more information on this case, read my 8/28/10, 8/30/10 , 9/2/10, and 10/11/10 posts and search the McInerney murder case.

McInerney Murder Trial #2

The Ventura County District Attorney’s Office has decided to retry Brandon McInerney for the 2008 murder of his classmate, Larry King.  Both Larry and Brandon were middle school students at the time of the incident.

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.

Time to add another “protected class”?

Lady Gaga wants to speak with the President about students’ civil rights.

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.

Do we really need a new law?

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.

What have we done so far? 

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.

Does being gay mean being bullied?

Odds are it does. Students are more likely to be bullied if they are seen as different in a negative way. It could be their race or ethnicity, size or weight, lack of social skills or athletic ability, or their special education needs – just about any characteristic that sets a student apart makes them a target for those who bully.

But the group most widely targeted for emotional and physical violence are students who are, or who are perceived as being, lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgender (LGBT). When a federally protected group such as this is bullied it becomes the more serious charge of harassment, hate driven behavior that infringes on the group’s civil rights.

Consider this grim statistic:

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. (Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network Survey 2009)

Do you know what school life is really like for your LGBT students?  How aware are staff and parents of the issues surrounding the harassment of LGBT students? Could this statistic, and the many others that support the prevalence of harassment, apply to the way your students are treated on the buses, in your halls, gyms, cafeterias, bathrooms, locker rooms, and classrooms?

Why not ask the adults and students in your school community? Surveys designed to measure the state of the climate of the school, especially those online, can be completed anonymously. A good place to start looking is at Stopbullying.gov where you can browse 33 assessment scales that measure bullying, victimization, perpetration, and by-stander experiences.

Another way to analyze the factors affecting how a certain group of students is treated in your school is to ask a group of teachers, parents, and students to complete a force field analysis like the one below. This process allows you to take a thoughtful and honest look at the climate and culture of your school to identify what is helping and what is hindering reaching your goal:

“We treat all students with respect and concern regardless of their sexual identity.”

Use a simple T-Chart to brainstorm

Forces PROMOTING Our Success         Forces PREVENTING Our Success

With the information you gathered from surveys and from the force field analysis, you have a good idea what school feels like to your LGBT students. And most importantly, you now know what you must do – intentionally and systematically – to make your school a violence-free and positive experience for all of your students.