copyright © 2008 Betsy L. Angert
The opposite of art is not ugliness; it’s indifference.
The opposite of faith is not heresy; it’s indifference.
And the opposite of life is not death; it’s indifference.”
~ Elie Wiesel
It was February 14, 2008, Valentine’s Day. Love was in the air. However, the expressions of appreciation offered were mournful. Doctors informed the family and his friends, Lawrence King, 15, was removed from life support. Two days earlier, young Larry was in the computer lab at E. O. Green Junior High in Oxnard, California. He sat with 24 other students when Brandon McInerney walked into the room with a gun. The armed classmate, fourteen-years of age, approached Lawrence with intent. Brandon aimed his weapon, pulled the trigger, and shot Lawrence in the head. Without hesitation, the shooter ran from the building. Circumstances led observers and police officers to conclude the act was intentional, calculated, and a conscious choice. Brandon committed what is commonly defined as a “hate crime.”
Students were locked in classrooms. Grief and disbelief filled the air. Adults tried to calm the children. Teens tried to cope. Peers were befuddled. Pupils sought information and shared what they knew. After the event, fingers flew across cellular telephone keypads. Text messages were sent and received from schoolroom to schoolroom. The words were, “Brandon McInerney did the deed.” ‘Not Brandon McInerney, No way.’
“Brandon wouldn’t do this,” eighth-grader Jessica Lee remembers thinking. “He’s a good kid. It can’t be Brandon.”
But some at the Oxnard junior high school had seen Larry, 15, teased by students in the weeks before the shooting for being gay and wearing high-heeled boots and makeup. Some witnessed confrontations between Larry and Brandon, with Larry teasing Brandon and saying he liked him.
Family members and friends described Larry as a sweet, artistic boy who loved to sing and didn’t understand why people reacted negatively to him.
Brandon, 14, a tall, athletic eighth-grader, was described by friends and acquaintances as a mellow, focused kid, but one who wouldn’t back down in a confrontation.
Brandon had learned his lessons well. He learned to feel deeply. Indifference was not part of his repertoire, intolerance was. Perhaps from within the womb, he began his education. Those who in an act of love came together to give birth to Brandon, apparently knew nothing more than volatile loathing. Perchance, Brandon’s mother, Kendra and his father, William were raised to love or hate, but not tolerate.
We can be certain that baby Brandon did as all infants do after birth, he absorbed all the messages that surrounded him. . Education is not an isolated entity. Knowledge is not gained only in a classroom. Our first school is called home. Structured lessons may inform us; however, these are never internalized as deeply as the wisdom we acquire at the knees of our Mom and Dad. Parents have a profound influence on a child. Those we love most have the power to teach us more. Definitely, the occurrence taught Brandon what to do when he felt troubled.
Kendra McInerney, Brandon’s mother, claimed a night of partying in 1993 ended in a fight and William shooting her in the elbow, breaking it in several places, according to court records. Still, they married later that year, and Brandon was born in January 1994.
The fighting didn’t stop, and sometimes it was witnessed by Brandon and his two older half-brothers, according to court records. In 2000, William pleaded no contest to a domestic battery charge against Kendra. He was sentenced to 10 days in jail and ordered to attend domestic violence classes. The couple separated in August 2000.
Love, or familiarity can breed contempt. Even when someone no longer shares a physical space with the person that causes him or her distress that individual remains intimately connected in the heart. Parting is not a sweet sorrow. Indeed, it is often the source of more pain. Indifference is rarely evident once an emotional bond is formed.
For Kendra and William McInerney, separation did nothing to alleviate the angst they felt or expressed. , Nor, did living apart make life more livable for the children. Drinking, drugs, and violence were daily transgressions in Brandon’s life. The stories are stark. Yet, fortunately, it appeared Brandon survived. Indeed, some would say he thrived.
Through all the family turmoil, Brandon got involved in activities outside the home, including martial arts and lifeguard training. He seemed to want something more than just the status quo of Silver Strand, Crave said.
“He didn’t want to be involved in that whole thing,” Crave said, gesturing at friends drinking a few beers nearby after getting off work.
Brandon joined the Young Marines – the Marine Corps’ equivalent of a JROTC program – several years ago and became a leader in the group, which disbanded last summer.
“Brandon was a young man that I would never have figured something like this would happen to,” said Mel Otte, his commanding officer.
Otte said he never witnessed Brandon showing a short temper and that he would have been kicked out of the group if he had bullied other kids.
“He was an outstanding young man,” Otte said. “What happened since I left, I have no idea.”
What occurred did not take place in a instant. The image of restraint did not transcend an earlier reality. Change did not come on in a flash. Often calm is a facade for the chaos that lay beneath the surface of a boy [girl, woman, or man] who battles emotional upheavals. What was real for Brandon is true for each of us. We learn and live what we believe is customary.
Even those of us who “know better,” or are exposed to impressive amounts of information, organized to challenge unhealthy conventions, do as we have seen done, or was done to us. Some escape the affects of sensory overload for a time. Few abandon family traditions until long they have repeatedly fallen from grace. Only an individual forced to face his or her “demons” day in and day out thinks to learn new habits.
We all love easily. We loathe with less effort. What we do not do well is authentically accept others. Few beings bother to have compassion, to learn from those who look, think, feel, or act differently. Without empathy, everyone is a possible enemy.
Hate, or fear, of what we do not understand, motivates many a mind to react aggressively. Apprehension and anxiety are not logical. None of our emotions are. Nevertheless, all too often humans, prideful of an intellectual capacity, are galvanized by feelings. We are threatened by what we feel terrorizes us.
For Brandon it was a boy who thought him fine. For adults it may be a secret admirer, or an individual who has authority over us. The neighbor who was unkind could seem a danger. Mature men or women may believe the man in the automobile in front of them is a menace. Even a small girl, on the corner, with her fingers out-stretched in a sign of peace could seem a hazard if our habit is to adopt an angry stance when we feel annoyed.
People are familiar with what deeply disturbs them. They know all too well how to demonstrate love and hate. Indifference is doable, as long as an n individual does not see or hear those outside their sphere. Benevolence, perhaps that is the reaction, the action we do not learn from birth.
We all crave a connection. Humans have needs. Individuals long to be included, intimately involved; we wish to feel as though we have the right and power to make decisions for ourselves. Men, women, and children are not indifferent. Hence the dilemma.
When it seems we are unable to manage our world, humans freak. Each of us responds differently, understandably. Intellectually, people may recognize they cannot control the universe. However, when stressed, we discover the habits we hold dear remain intact. Our reactions are not innate, just well studied. Brandon McInerney was not a bad boy. He is a human being. He reacted as he had learned to do. Barely fourteen years of age, Brandon expressed his deep disdain for a situation and someone he could not control.
Chaos abounds. Nonetheless, we try. Too often, we fail. A senseless murder, and what assassination is not absurd, illustrates what occurs when someone does not feel fulfilled and knows not what to do. People in physical or psychological pain lash out in the ways they know how.
Brandon McInerney was baffled, no terrified, by the actions of another boy. Lawrence did not cause bodily harm to his peer. He did no verbal damage, at least not intentionally. Paradoxically, when Larry spoke of Brandon, he articulated his sincere admiration. That is what bothered the young boy Brandon. Love, especially when expressed unconventionally, caused Brandon’s heart and mind to break. The young lad, now passed, Larry, did not bully Brandon or his buddies. Indeed, the other boys hassled Lawrence prior to his final day.
In recent weeks, the victim, Lawrence King, 15, had said publicly that he was gay, classmates said, enduring harassment from a group of schoolmates, including the 14-year-old boy charged in his death.
McInerney, now in custody, refuses to speak of what motivated him. His lawyer offers the fourteen year old is too young to fully understand his actions. Perhaps all people are too immature to rationalize the unreasonable, revulsion, repulsion, and feelings of repugnance.
What is hate? Certainly, it is an emotion, as inexplicable as fondness. Each can be voiced to the extreme. Neither is inconsequential. Perhaps, when humans feel adoration or antipathy they lose all perspective. The chemistry we feel when we connect intensely is uncontrollable. If only people could capture the energy and place it in a bottle before they pop.
Assemblyman Mike Eng (Democrat, Monterey Park), chairman of the Assembly Select Committee on Hate Crimes, said we would, with a bit of money directed towards teaching diversity, be able to stop crimes against people based on race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.
“My bill is focusing on [hate crime] prevention,” Eng said after a news conference at his El Monte district office. “We already have bills on the books about proper punishment; mine will focus on dealing with hatred in a school setting.”
Eng hopes to create a pilot program by allocating up to $150,000 to establish a diversity and sensitivity curriculum at a few school districts. The pilot program would serve as a model to be used to develop lesson plans statewide.
Others in the community believe the proposed program only serves to comfort parents and Principals, adults, and not adolescents. Countless argue that similar programs such as D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), are ineffective. These simplistic strategies always were nothing more than slogans used to appease anxious adults. Although these agendas survive, they do not strengthen the will or the character of the young persons they serve. At times, instruction is as indifference. If you do not know what to do, or say about an open wound, look for an easy answer. Apply salve, and walk away. Most of us truly believe the sore will eventually heal by itself.
Here’s a news flash: “Just Say No” is not an effective anti-drug message. And neither are Barney-style self-esteem mantras . . .
DARE, which is taught by friendly policemen in 75 percent of the nation’s school districts, has been plagued by image problems from the beginning, when it first latched on to Nancy Reagan’s relentlessly sunny and perversely simplistic “Just say No” campaign. The program’s goals include teaching kids creative ways to say “no” to drugs, while simultaneously bolstering their self-esteem (which DARE founders insist is related to lower rates of drug use). . . .
According to an article published in the August 1999 issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, DARE not only did not affect teenagers’ rate of experimentation with drugs, but may also have actually lowered their self-esteem. . . .
The findings were grim: 20-year-olds who’d had DARE classes were no less likely to have smoked marijuana or cigarettes, drunk alcohol, used “illicit” drugs like cocaine or heroin, or caved in to peer pressure than kids who’d never been exposed to DARE. But that wasn’t all. “Surprisingly,” the article states, “DARE status in the sixth grade was negatively related to self-esteem at age 20, indicating that individuals who were exposed to DARE in the sixth grade had lower levels of self-esteem 10 years later.” Another study, performed at the University of Illinois, suggests some high school seniors who’d been in DARE classes were more likely to use drugs than their non-DARE peers.
Still, Americans, intent on straightforward solutions, quick fixes, and immediate gratification, forget that life is not so simple. The family teaches children from birth. The lessons we learn in our youngest years are internalized deeply. In infancy, each day we encounter our mother, father, or guardian, the people we need most, and most want to love us. As toddlers, we are intimately involved with our caregivers, even if they do not seem to care for us. When we are children, the only choice that we have, the only option that gives us a sense of control, is to cling to those who help us survive. Moms and Dads are our first and best, teachers, if only because they are there in whatever capacity.
However, sadly, for some of us, such as Brandon McInerney our mentors did not teach us well. Schools try to suffice. Teachers with ten, twenty forty to a class try to create a relationship with each student. As educators teach Math, Science, Reading, and English, they work to provide a sense of self-worth to each and every young scholar. For a few hours, five days a week, a troubled youngster can call his or her classroom home.
For young people such as Larry, school may have been a place to blossom, somewhere where he felt safe, or for both the boys an educational institution may have been the place where lessons begun at birth were reinforced. Each was teased, bullied, and verbally battered. Each had friends. However, they may not have felt they achieved an authentic intimate connection with anyone. Even acquaintances can say . . .
“He had a character that was bubbly,” Marissa said. “We would just laugh together. He would smile, then I would smile, and then we couldn’t stop.”
An ally in life does more than smile or laugh. Larry King may have felt he had few real supporters, in a school he attended for only months. How close can two people be when they see each other only for hours and then each returns to their own abode. One may return to the place they consider “Home Sweet Home,” the other may reside in an institution, far from those who are “supposed” to love him.
For several months before to the shooting, Larry had been living at Casa Pacifica, a residential center for troubled youths in Camarillo.
Lawrence’s parents are alive and well, as are his four siblings, a younger brother, two older brothers, and an older sister. While the family spoke lovingly of the dearly departed, they dared not speak of why the lad no longer lived with them. Many children today are placed in treatment agencies. The numbers are staggering. The reasons are astounding. Yet, when people know not how to love well, and are not indifferent, they do what they may hate to do.
The number of children placed in residential treatment centers (or RTCs) (1) is growing exponentially.(2) These modern-day orphanages now house more than 50,000 children nationwide.(3) Children are packed off to RTCs, often sent by officials they have never met, who have probably never spoken to their parents, teachers or social workers.(4) Once placed, these kids may have no meaningful contact with their families or friends for up to two years.(5) And, despite many documented cases of neglect and physical and sexual abuse, monitoring is inadequate to ensure that children are safe, healthy and receiving proper services in RTCs.(6) By funneling children with mental illnesses into the RTC system, states fail-at enormous cost-to provide more effective community-based mental health services.(7)
RTC placements are often inappropriate.
RTCs are among the most restrictive mental health services and, as such, should be reserved for children whose dangerous behavior cannot be controlled except in a secure setting.(8) Too often, however, child-serving bureaucracies hastily place children in RTCs because they have not made more appropriate community-based services available.(9) Parents who are desperate to meet their kids’ needs often turn to RTCs because they lack viable alternatives.(10)
To make placement decisions, families in crisis and overburdened social workers rely on the institutions’ glossy flyers and professional websites with testimonials of saved children.(11) But all RTCs are not alike.(12) Local, state and national exposés and litigation “regarding the quality of care in residential treatment centers have shown that some programs promise high-quality treatment but deliver low-quality custodial care.”(13) As a result, parents and state officials play a dangerous game of Russian roulette as they decide where to place children, because little public information is available about the RTCs, which are under-regulated and under-supervised.
Yet, parents and community services agencies take those who are perhaps most vulnerable, our young and troubled teens, and place them in Residential Treatment Centers not able to provide minimal care. When we, as a culture consider other options, and other means for childcare, we cannot but think of poor Brandon and how he suffered at the hands of his mother and father. We are reminded that Brandon, the tormented shooter, lived in a location he called home. We might wonder; which situation was better, worse, or can we even compare the traumas each child in this story suffered.
Brandon and Larry are not anomalies. They are not alone. Children throughout our country are taught to express love in a violent manner. The little ones watch adults they admire model cruelty. The young are trained to demonstrate their contempt similarly. Sadistic reactive behaviors rule in our society. Listen to people ruthlessly scream in the marketplace. Consider the abundance of “hate crimes” in America. Turn on the television. Tune into the radio. Read the “literature.” Hostile conduct is commended and condoned.
For too many of our offspring, aggression in their daily existence is the norm. They hear it in their homes; see their parent bludgeon each other. As toddlers, tots, children, or teens our youth feel the bruises on their back, and remember the bones broken by those they love most. Ponder the statistics.
During FFY 2005, an estimated 899,000 children in the 50 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico were determined to be victims of abuse or neglect.
- Children in the age group of birth to 3 years had the highest rate of victimization at 16.5 per 1,000 children of the same age group in the national population;
- More than one-half of the victims were 7 years old or younger (54.5%)
- More than one-half of the child victims were girls (50.7%) and 47.3 percent were boys; and
- Approximately one-half of all victims were White (49.7%); one-quarter (23.1%) were African-American; and 17.4 percent were Hispanic.
Gender preference did not determine maltreatment when infants and the very young among were involved. Specific biases are learned as we “mature.” While many wish to focus on Larry’s identification with the gay community as reason for such a horrific reaction, the cause for Brandon’s response goes far deeper. Scorn is rarely selective. Disparagement is an equal opportunity employer.
Abusive behaviors are rooted in our personal history. We cannot dismiss the fact that as a society, our past performances towards those we disdain are deplorable. As a culture, emotional beings that we are, we embrace love and hate, and ignore indifference.
We must ask ourselves, what are we doing to our offspring from the day they enter this world, and why. Answers offered after the fact, solutions that do not address the broader question will not stop the violence we see in schools. Nor will it quash the mayhem or reduce the murders we see on our streets. Hate crimes are born at home. Mothers and fathers motivate much that occurs. Moms and Dads often do what was done to them.
Children ‘learn violence from parents’
Children who witness domestic violence are at an increased risk of having abusive relationships as adults, researchers have found.
Being abused as a child and having behavioural problems also increases the risk of being violent as adults. Receiving excessive punishment is another risk factor. US researchers from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and the New York State Psychiatric Institute followed 540 children for 20 years from 1975 . . .
If a pattern of violent behaviour towards a partner has been established, it is difficult to change say the researchers. . . .
If a child was hit by their parents, they were much more likely to see violence as a way of resolving problems as adults, the researchers found.
But seeing violence perpetuated between parents was found the be the greatest risk factor for being the victim of a violent partner as an adult.
Both men and women who witnessed domestic violence were likely to grow up to abuse their partners . . .
“This acceptance of coercive, power-based norms as ways of regulating conflict may have direct implications for young adults’ means of conflict resolution with partners, independent of a disruptive behaviour disorder.”
For too many of our young persons a forceful hand, a furious face, and a vicious voice are identified with those they are most fond of. Children are confused. In too many lives, love does not come easily. Little ones do not know what authentic affection looks like. As “mature” beings, some people seek the wisdom they did not acquire in their family homes. They wish to learn of what could not have been fully integrated in a school curriculum. Grown-up persons harmed by habits that debilitate a mind, body, heart, and soul know to their core, habits die hard. Adult classes meant to teach as Assemblyman Eng proposed exist at West Virginia University an older person can study How To Communicate Love. Learners are instructed, “Love comes from within.” Students are advised to appreciate themselves.
Learning to love yourself will help create your personal appearance of love. If you do not know how to love yourself, you will not be able to love others. Loving yourself also means that you have a loving attitude in your actions and responses toward others; that you look for opportunities to help rather than be helped; that you communicate a loving appreciation of others with “thank you” and “please” as part of your vocabulary; that you forgive others and do not hold a grudge; and that you help people in need without thought of reward or recognition.
However, ultimately pupils are reminded of what Lawrence and Brandon have helped us realize.
How we communicate love to others is learned; we are not born with the ability to communicate love.
Nor are we born with the ability to hate. Each of us, every man, woman, and child is well-trained. If we are to truly end the violence that exists in schools, we must eliminate the hostility in our homes. Assemblyman Eng, perhaps a program in parenting, one instituted in every community throughout the globe might be more effective than any instruction in a school. If we are to truly teach forbearance to our progeny we must acknowledge parents, adults in every avenue are our life teachers. Let us not speak of how best to teach the children tolerance. We, their elders must learn how to love first. Perhaps, if the elders begin to appreciate each other without brutality, next Valentine’s Day Cupid will not shoot arrow. He will bestow gentle kisses on each of us.
Larry was a masterpiece.”
~ Reverend Dan Birchfield, Westminster Presbyterian Church
Sources, Societal Scars, Scabs . . .
- Boy’s Killing, Labeled a Hate Crime, Stuns a Town, By Rebecca Cathcart. The New York Times. February 23, 2008
- Suspected school shooter’s childhood marred by violence, But friends can’t believe Brandon McInerney did it. By Zeke Barlow, Cheri Carlson, Kathleen Wilson. Ventura County Star. ?Sunday, February 24, 2008
- Oxnard slaying prompts diversity education bill, By Gregory W. Griggs. Los Angeles Times. February 19, 2008
- D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education)
- Just Say No to DARE, By Jessica Reaves. Time Magazine. Thursday, February 15, 2001
- Victim’s family members say they will donate teen’s organs, By Adam Foxman. Ventura County Star. ?Friday, February 15, 2008
- Child Maltreatment 2005. Administration for Children and Families.
- Hate Crime Statistics 2006. U.S. Department of Justice.