A confusion of issues and solutions
We are back to school after the terrible tragedy of December 14th and the long holiday vacation. It was a juxtaposition of realities for families and school staff. And then the tragedy was high jacked by the gun industry, propelling us into a national discussion about arming school personnel to protect students and staff from a future violent rampage.
It is natural for caring people to want to do something, to take concrete action to prevent any more deaths of innocent school children and adults. We feel helpless otherwise. Every school district and building is likely reviewing its crisis prevention and emergency response plans, wondering how it would have handled the situation, making improvements, and holding practice drills. We are skittish.
But the discussion has gone askew. Putting guns in schools for protection is a dangerous diversion from the issues, a misguided over reaction that makes schools less safe. It is heartening to see the growing push back against this proposed solution.
Violence in Perspective
What we really need to do is to put what happened at Sandy Hook in perspective. Mass murder, or any murder, is still extremely rare at a school. It is horrible, but rare. And what happened at Sandy Hook is even more rare, as it does not fit the typical profile for the kind of deadly violence of a Columbine, Jonesboro, or West Paducah . This time the killer was not a disenfranchised, troubled, bullied male student from that school, hell-bent on notoriety or revenge. The Sandy Hook killer was an outsider, a troubled adult with a not yet revealed motive for choosing this elementary school to act out his mental breakdown.
But, yes! There is violence in schools and it spans the violence continuum from subtle to overt, from emotional to physical. The profile of school violence looks like this:
Common, every day – taunting, teasing, excluding, bullying, shoving, threatening, harassing, hazing…among students.
Rare: Incidents of killing of students and staff by a student in that school.
Extremely rare: Incidents of killing of students and staff by an outside intruder.
The real issues
It is clear that deadly gun violence by a student or an outsider are a distant second and third behind the typical more subtle violence our students have to deal with in schools daily, and that they are very different issues. What happened at Sandy Hook is not a school issue; it is a cultural, societal, and legal issue.
Suggesting that the routine use of armed guards or armed staff at all schools is the answer to school violence is irrational. It intentionally clouds the broader issues of a culture that uses violence to settle problems and to dominate others, the control of access to assault and other weapons, and the insufficient availability of mental health services for those in need and their families. These are the issues Sandy Hooks begs us to face head on if we truly want to keep our children and ourselves safe from random mass-shootings, because they can and do happen anywhere – at the mall, on our streets, in a movie theater, in a fast food restaurant, at an office building, and in our homes. The answer is not to station armed guards where ever people gather.
We can do some concrete things to make our schools safe
- Have a written school safety plan that includes prevention and crisis response that meets our specific needs. From what we know, the principal and staff had done this due diligence to protect the members of their school. They developed a thorough crisis prevention/intervention plan that included controlled, limited access to the school, a plan for lock down and sheltering in place in an emergency, and a plan for sheltering off site in the event of an evacuation; and they practiced the drill with their students and staff. Add to this the valor of the adults and cooperation of the children, and they can rest assured they had taken school safety seriously. An armed guard or a principal with a gun would likely not have stopped someone with a semi-automatic weapon that planned to break into a school to shoot people.
- Review and address the safety needs of our particular school. Many schools, usually secondary schools, in high-risk areas or with a high incidence of verbal and physical threats, poor administrative leadership, assaults, gang activity, non-compliance with the staff and school code of conduct, etc. have responded to their specific needs with security measures such as campus guards, controlled entry, and metal detectors, no backpacks, and swift and consistent response to violent threats or acts. These precautions are proper in these situations, but not for all schools.
- Continue to intentionally make our school a violence-free zone for every student and adult. Assess and address the kinds of subtle, hurtful violence students face every day. Be observant, listen to students, and report and deal with problems as they arise. We aren’t helpless. This is what we can do to make schools safer and more secure for our children.
For information on the violence continuum and how to use it to identify the needs in your school, please see my book, The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate.
It had to be a slam dunk, didn’t it? He shot and killed his classmate in front of a room full of students and the defense never contested that he was guilty of the killing. But yesterday the jury told the judge that they were deadlocked with no chance of reaching a unanimous vote.
Brandon McInerney was barely 14 years old when he killed Larry King. Three years later he was tried as an adult, as allowed in California by a 1995 law that changed the cutoff from 16 to 14. To a handful of the jurors, Brandon McInerney was guilty of either first or second degree murder in the death of Larry King. But seven of the jurors wanted to convict Brandon of voluntary manslaughter. It’s no wonder they were a hung jury: When it comes to children, people’s reactions are influenced by many factors, including our cultural belief that adults should protect children from violence, and their personal attitudes and experiences. We have compassion for an abused child and in this case it appears the jury thought that both the murdered child and the murderer were victims.
Trying Brandon as an adult made the jury’s job more difficult. They had to decide which of these adult charges, with very adult consequences, applied:
- The most serious charge was first degree murder, which California defines as the willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought. Malice aforethought is the conscious mental determination to commit an unlawful act. While the seven jurors may have believed Brandon did premeditate and have a plan to intentionally murder Larry that day, they also may have believed the mandatory 25 years to life sentence carried by a first degree murder conviction was inappropriate in this situation. And if they convicted him of first-degree murder and a hate crime, the sentence would escalate to mandatory life without parole.
- Second-degree murder is any murder not defined as first-degree murder. To be considered second-degree murder the homicide must be intentional and with malice, but not premeditated or planned. It is also not a killing committed in the “heat of passion.” In California a second degree murder conviction carries a 15 years to life sentence. Again, given the particulars of the case, the possibility of life imprisonment, with little chance for rehabilitation, did not sit well with many on the jury.
- Voluntary manslaughter occurs when the homicide is committed without malice aforethought, and is instead a spontaneous act arising during a sudden quarrel or in the heat of passion. As compared to first and second degree murder, voluntary manslaughter carries a sentence of 3, 6, or 9 years; a life sentence was not an option.
Charged to keep an open mind and to consider all the evidence presented, they heard testimony of warning signs of escalating friction between the two boys and missed opportunities where school officials should have intervened. Adults had a chance to prevent the tragedy and they failed. With all the emotional nuances of the case, it isn’t hard to see why the jury deadlocked.
But was the killing premeditated first degree murder? I believe the evidence proved it was. Brandon told others he was going to kill Larry, and the next day he stole a gun from his house, hid it in his backpack, went to school, sat in the same room as Larry King, and after a few minutes got up and stood behind him, and then shot two bullets into the back of Larry’s head. At the time Larry was not bothering or even interacting with Brandon. There was no argument, no provocation, no verbal taunting that would trigger “a heat of the moment” homicide.
Yet seven of the jurors voted for voluntary manslaughter. Why would they do this? We already mentioned aversion to condemning him to spend a good part or all of his life in prison, but Brandon had other factors working in his favor: he was white, good-looking and boyish, not at all threatening; he killed a gay student portrayed as a flamboyant sexual predator who harassed him; testimony that he suffered great emotional and physical harm at the hands of his father, the same person who taught his sons to believe that gays were an aberration not worthy of respect. Brandon was abused at home and bothered in school by a homosexual, and the jurors felt compassion for him. They could see the tragedy through his eyes.
Did the jurors feel the same compassion for Larry, an openly gay eighth grader who sometimes wore make up and dressed in girl’s clothes? A child of color who had his own share of family issues and lived in foster care? A youngster who was teased and harassed because of his sexuality? Like Brandon, Larry had a tough life and was victimized in school. Did the jurors feel compassion for Larry? Could they see the tragedy through his eyes?
I can’t help but wonder if the circumstances were reversed and Larry King, the gay student, shot and killed Brandon McInerney, the straight student, if there would have been a hung jury.
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