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.
My new book, The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate, is now set for a December (not November) release.
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 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.
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.
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.
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)
US Department of Education (USDOE)