Tuesday, June 10, 2008

What caused middle school tragedy?

14-year-old Brandon McInerney to be arraigned Thursday

The facts are deceptively simple:

  • Lawrence "Larry" King was a 15-year-old who loved art, chess, and entomology. Since moving to a home for abused children, he was becoming more open about his sexuality and had taken to sporting high heels and makeup.
  • Larry was relentlessly teased at his Southern California middle school. His response was to dish it back at his tormentors, who included among them the popular and hypermasculine Brandon "Bear" McInerney.
  • An escalating conflict between the two boys ended on Feb. 12, when Brandon marched into E.O. Green Middle School and shot Larry in the head. Brandon will be arraigned later this week in Ventura County on a charge of murder with a hate crime enhancement.
But beyond these superficial case facts, questions swirl:
  • What provoked Brandon to the point that he committed murder? And should he be prosecuted as an adult?
  • Does the school bear any responsibility? Should administrators have realized the danger and intervened before lethal violence exploded?
  • What can and should be done to improve the safety of gender-nonconforming youth in the schools?
Prosecution as an adult

On the front burner is the question of whether Brandon will be tried as an adult. In California, the minimum age at which a juvenile can be transferred to adult court is 14. Brandon had turned 14 just a few weeks before the offense.

In an ironic twist, a coalition of 27 sexual minority groups has urged the District Attorney not to try Brandon in adult court, where he would face a punishment of 50 years to life in prison. "We call on prosecutors not to compound this tragedy with another wrong,” wrote the coalition. "We support the principles underlying our juvenile justice system that treat children differently than adults and provide greater hope and opportunity for rehabilitation." The letter cites research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finding that children tried as adults are more likely to commit another crime than those tried as juveniles.

The prosecutor's office is likely to ignore the coalition's eloquent plea. After all, Brandon showed premeditation by bringing a gun to school a day after a lunchtime argument with Larry.

School's responsibility debated

In the wake of the tragedy, many fingers are pointing at the school - but from different sides.

On one side is Brandon's public defender, William Quest. He blames the school for being too gay-positive, and letting Larry come to school wearing feminine accessories. Administrators should have intervened when Larry openly flirted with Brandon, he says.

On the other side are lesbian and gay activists, who point out that despite significant progress the schools remain a dangerous place for gender-deviant youth. Four out of five sexual minority youth report being harassed at school, according to a recent national survey.

The oxymoronic "No Child Left Behind" movement, with its myopic focus on standardized testing, has also decimated many anti-bullying programs. "A lot of educators are frustrated because they understand the importance of addressing some of these larger [social] efforts, but when they try to they're told, 'You've just got to get the math scores up,' " said educator Kevin Jennings.

Still, there are dramatic signs of change. Many young people are coming out at earlier ages, are finding acceptance among peers, and are feeling good about themselves. This year, more than 7,500 schools nationwide participated in a student-led Day of Silence dedicated to Larry King.

The annual Day of Silence is sponsored by the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) movement. School-based GSA clubs are one of the most promising methods of improving school safety, and they are increasingly common at the high school level. Larry's middle school did not have one.

Gay Panic Defense?

The accusations leveled by Brandon's public defender raise the possibility of a Gay Panic Defense, in which the defense might claim that Brandon had no choice but to defend himself and his masculinity from Larry's aggressive sexuality.

In my own research with antigay hate crime perpetrators, I found that many young men believe they have a right to physically assault gay men whom they perceive as flirting with them.

In my research, I conceptualized antigay violence as existing on a continuum. At one end are verbal taunts that are ubiquitous and which, sadly, remain socially acceptable among many adolescents. At the other end are severe acts of violence. These tend to be committed not necessarily by those with the most hostile attitudes toward gay people but, rather, by those with the most severe histories of violence or abuse.

Brandon's case fits this model. Brandon was just one among many of the students at E.O. Green who routinely teased and taunted Larry, according to an account in the Ventura County Star:
"A lot of people picked on him," said Madison Norton, 12. "Some people would walk up to him, and he'd say something back. It would be random, like at lunch - 'What's with the makeup' - weird stuff like that."

Hailey Day, 13, said she regularly heard Brandon calling Larry derogatory names the week before the shooting. She would tell him to stop, and Brandon would walk away.
But Brandon, as the product of a volatile home environment, had the potential for more extreme violence. Court records reveal a childhood dominated by family violence and drug addiction, according to a report in the Ventura County Star newspaper. Indeed, right around the time of his conception his father shot his mother in the elbow. Thus, throughout his life Brandon had seen violence modeled as a method of solving problems.

If students had an open channel of communication to school administrators, and if administrators could effectively respond, this tragedy might have been averted. Just the day before the killing, at a lunchtime confrontation between Brandon and Larry, another boy reportedly shouted at Larry: "You better watch your back."

Did anyone take the threat seriously? Perhaps only Larry.

The day of the shooting, Larry looked upset, friends told the Star. "He came to school looking different. Gone were the boots and makeup. He wore regular tennis shoes and had his hair gelled and carefully combed to the side."

"I said, 'Dude, what's wrong?' " his friend Matthew Hernandez recalled. "He said, 'Nothing.' "

Yesterday, NPR's All Things Considered ran a 5-minute segment on the case, including chilling audio from a 911 call. (Listen here.) More background is online at Wikipedia, the Advocate, and the Los Angeles Times.

Hat tip: Greg Herek


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