The angry country
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 28: Still the Lucky Country?
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Melissa Lucashenko
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Melissa Lucashenko's biography and other articles by this writer
This is what we know about the death of Jai Morcom.
On the morning of 28 August 2009, Jai, a fifteen-year-old Year 9 student, was involved in a fight at Mullumbimby High School, in far northern New South Wales. After being knocked to the ground in an argument about a lunch table just after eleven, he lost consciousness. Other kids told reporters that Jai, lying collapsed on the ground outside the girls' toilets where the fight ended, was ‘frothing at the mouth'. First aid was given by a nurse and 000 was called. An ambulance then took Jai to hospital on the Gold Coast.
Two days later the popular young student, never having regained consciousness, was taken off life support. The school went immediately into crisis management, issuing a script for teachers to read out in class concerning the incident, as an urban media pack poured into the quiet rural town, whose population normally hovers around three thousand.
Nearly four months later, in December, police issued a statement asking the Mullumbimby community to come forward with more information. Despite a protracted investigation, with Gold Coast detectives interviewing more than seventy MHS students and staff, no clear picture has yet emerged of why Jai left for school that morning assuring his mother that yes, he had his lunch money, and never returned home.
Despite the fight (variously reported in the national media as a ‘brawl', a ‘bashing' and a ‘savage attack') having occurred during recess, with up to two hundred witnesses in the immediate vicinity, no mobile phone coverage of the fight – as opposed to its aftermath – has been handed to police. Few in the small hinterland town of farmers, hippies and tree-changers are saying anything, and Jai's anguished parents still have no way of knowing exactly how, or why, their son was killed.
A child's death at a school – any school – is a particular kind of tragedy. Schools are meant to be special places for children. It is the essence of a school, at least in theory, that it nurtures and supports young people as it educates them; aggressive acts are more of an affront at schools than in most other settings. This notion of schools as scholarly safe havens must be tempered by the reality, though, that all high schools contain volatile young teenagers, and that school – particularly schoolyard – conflicts are inevitable. Kids have always clashed in the playground and probably always will. Six short months after Jai Morcom died, another eruption of adolescent conflict saw twelve-year-old Elliot Fletcher fatally stabbed at St Patrick's school in bayside Brisbane. Elliot's death, over which a thirteen-year-old straight-A student has been charged, starkly raises the question of whether adolescent boys may have most of the reasons of adult men to clash, but very few of the negotiating skills which adults are supposed to have developed to avoid disaster.
The harsh reality that no school can ever wholly protect our kids from those who would harm them was abruptly swept aside in the torrent of reaction to Jai's death. Journalists evicted from the Mullumbimby school grounds perched at its gate with telephoto lenses, and headlines blazed ‘Schoolboy Beaten to Death During Recess'. Speculation and outright fabrication was published as fact; some of the reportage was sufficiently mendacious to prompt an episode of ABC TV's Media Watch.
Unsurprisingly, many in the town and in the media took the line that the death was an outcome of pure thuggery. Bullying became the hot topic that week. Facebook ran wild with hang-'em-high writers urging the cane, military service and the gallows as solutions to endemic ‘gang violence' in schools.
Gossip and speculation also whirled about Byron Shire as the school strove to maintain some semblance of authority. In an odd coincidence, the MHS grounds, which border Saltwater Creek, were being fenced with standard issue black six-foot spike-topped panels when Jai's death occurred. This immaculate new security fence was handy in keeping the school ground – previously unfenced and frequently deserted by MHS students streaming to and from the town centre, a few hundred metres away – inviolate from media and other unwanted scrutiny. The irony of a highly visible six-foot steel fence keeping out the dangers of the world, when it was inside the school grounds that Jai had been killed, was not easily missed.
In the immediate aftermath of Jai's death, the security fence kept out everyone but staff, investigating police and those few students who turned up to class (school attendance records show entire classes absent the following week, with ‘unexplained' marked against dozens of names). A friend of mine who tried to sign his son in to the school was stopped at the gate by quickly imported security in the first week of September. Eventually the security guard realised he was a genuine parent, not a predatory journalist, and allowed him, fuming, into the grounds.
What the new security regime couldn't possibly stop, though, was the rumour mill, which continues to grind away months later, with devastating results for community morale. With no charges laid, and an open finding at the preliminary inquest, Mullumbimby still has nothing concrete to draw upon to explain the tragedy. An undercurrent of fear is present; I was warned by one concerned mother close to the incident to ‘be really careful' in researching this story. Every possible scenario to explain Jai's death is being canvassed throughout this small and once close-knit community. A representative sample:
One former Mullum High parent told me the kids believed to be the perpetrators include ‘real head-cases going fast down a real bad road'; another local added that some are from families suffering mental illness, ‘really off with the fairies'.
No, I was told by a junior MHS staff member, it's impossible to know who was responsible, since it was a melee – nobody knows exactly what happened, nor will we ever.
A common conversational thread is that the fight erupted between a gang of football thugs and a bunch of younger Emo kids. Jai was hit once, say some, his head striking the wall as he fell, and that was the end of it. Or perhaps Jai was knocked to the ground and then assaulted multiple times, kicked and punched by a gang of older boys while unconscious. The autopsy showed multiple blows to his body, others claim – including Jai's father, Steve Drummond, in an open letter to the local newspaper, the Byron Shire Echo. Alternatively, the body was unmarked.
One former teacher told me with rolling eyes that the conspiracy theories have gone so far as to suggest that the Gold Coast Titans football club, based an hour to the north, has, along with police, had a hand in suppressing the truth about the death, in order to protect some budding Rugby League talent in the town.
A disaffected Grade 10 student I picked up hitchhiking towards his new life as an apprentice in a nearby town was strongly attached to the fantasy he recounted: the boy responsible for killing Jai had already been charged, and was now locked up in juvie (neither is true). Furthermore, he said, outlining a sensational picture of hard drug use by students, ‘the teachers don't care – they've just given up. They can't control anything.'
What the staff of Mullumbimby High certainly can't control is the demographic mix which turns up on their doorstep each year with the new intake. My daughter attended Mullum High for four years in the mid-2000s. She learned in classrooms where the children of fifth-generation cane and cattle farmers sat next to kids whose parents had fled the cities to find cheap hilly land on which to smoke dope and build permaculture gardens while awaiting world peace. This group is still relatively small in Mullumbimby, which is equidistant between Narrabri and Nimbin on the Rainbow Scale, and is a demographic increasingly squeezed out by the arrival of cashed-up southern yuppies doing a sea change. (House prices in Mullumbimby more than doubled in the past five years).
Nevertheless, the hippies have imparted a distinct counterculture flavour to the town centre, with Santos Wholefoods selling organic everything a couple of doors up from the booming real estate offices, and yoga classes and spiritual healings a dime a dozen. Dreadlocked buskers are common in the main street, and the Mullumbimby Medical Centre may be the only doctor's surgery in the world whose staff – yes, the doctors – have happily posed naked (in a 2003 calendar to raise money for the local hospital). And I somehow think it was a hill-dweller, not a cane farmer, who wrote in the school's condolence book that the attitude of Steve Drummond – in the early days after his only son died, one of forbearance and forgiveness – was ‘surely the action of the Buddha and the Christ and the love of the Angels made manifest'.
A good percentage of local alternative lifestylers – who live in the isolated hills surrounding Mullumbimby, popularly supposed to mean ‘rounded hills' in Bundjalung, up to half an hour's drive from town on potholed dirt roads that wreck your cheap car – send their kids to the Shearwater Steiner school. The Steiner school sits on its own pretty acreage five kilometres further inland, but it is a private school, and it costs. Those parents who won't, or can't, pay the fees have no other convenient high school to turn to. Once at MHS, the twelve-year-olds from, say, Upper Main Arm are asked to leave behind their primary school uniform – a tie-dyed rainbow T-shirt, shoes optional – and meld into a school population of close to a thousand jostling kids of all descriptions.