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Edition 28

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Reportage

The angry country

Selected for Best Australian Essays 2010

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.

UP UNTIL DECEMBER 2009, Richard Heazlewood-Ross was the avuncular and well-liked deputy head of Mullum High. When I spoke to him, he was on the cusp of retirement, looking forward to getting more heavily involved with the marginalised kids who are his passion through the Byron Community College. With the support of Southern Cross University in Lismore, the college operates much like alternative schools in the cities. It remains strongly linked to MHS and delivers its courses through distance education modules. The community college began in Byron Bay, but also operates now through ‘The Hut' youth centre in Mullumbimby, staffed part-time by Deb Pearse (a woman who struck me as not so much burnt out as close to incinerated). What kind of kids, I asked Heazlewood-Ross, are shifting across from MHS to study at The Hut? ‘The BCC kids are those with mental health issues. Anxiety, agoraphobia. There are sexually precocious girls.' He speaks of teenagers, once capable of seriously destructive behaviour, turning around, finishing Year 10. ‘It's a beautiful thing, really – one boy's made a table in woodwork that he wants to donate back to Mullum High.'

The college, Heazlewood-Ross explained, runs on ‘the smell of a smell of an oily rag' and is an avenue – realistically the only avenue – for the teenagers who arrive at the school without the skills to survive, let alone succeed, in the classroom at Mullum High. ‘They are victims of their home life, and so they come along to us and become victims of the classroom, and that leads to them...well, I don't like to use the word "failing". "Hexagonal pegs" is how one parent described them to me. A lot of them are kids that are difficult for their parents to control. They go out partying, and then it's hard to get to school the next day, so they don't come, and then they get marginalised even more. You've got daughters with AVOs out against their mothers, and the mothers have got AVOs out against the daughters. I mean we've got kids here who go into town at lunchtime and see their mums drunk underneath the Scout Hall. It's no wonder they have trouble fitting in.'

Heazlewood-Ross's deep concern for these struggling kids is palpable. Talking to him, I was reminded of the shock that ran through the school community when he was not awarded  the vacant principal's position in 2005. Everyone thought he should have gotten it, my daughter told me at the time – everyone likes him. The job went instead to an outsider to the school, Ian Graham, a quiet, reserved man who in December 2009 took to wearing a red, black and yellow Koori wristband on his right arm, and when asked to describe the mood of the school, told me, ‘Settled. Settled – but impacted.'

 

IMPACTED IS THE word, all right. Tensions ran very high in Mullumbimby in the weeks following the death. Students in the first furious days marched en masse in the street, demanding Ian Graham's resignation, only to be countered by a group of parents and staff vocally supporting the principal. Steve Drummond berated the protesting students, telling them they should be remembering his son in a quiet, respectful manner, instead of having their ‘stupid, petty little fights'.

A teenage Halloween dance organised in the Drill Hall a fortnight after the death was marred by brawling outside and in the streets of the town; a boy arrived stoned and carrying a bottle of whisky.

Back at MHS, as floral tributes and graffiti mounted up against the brick wall of the girl's toilets (‘We will never forget you Jai'; ‘We'll party again don't you worry bro'), the school canteen became a bizarre side issue. A tuckshop revolution ensued when it was found to be tens of thousands of dollars in debt. New managers were appointed in the weeks following Jai's death, and a revised menu of healthy food was promoted by some as the answer to the school's problems.

Much of the local discontent since 28 August 2009 has centred on whether bullying contributed to Jai's death. It could have happened anywhere, say some; table wars are the norm, not the exception, and all schools have fights at some time or another. It was a freak accident, that's all. The town  is now deeply split between those who argue that Mullum High is just like every other public high school in Australia and those who see Jai as victim of a ‘born-to-rule' football clique clashing with a sub-group of younger kids.

The footy crowd make up their own rules as they go along, some argue, including the mother of a close friend of Jai's: ‘It just makes me sick. They think they're above everyone else, just because they play footy. I told [her partner] if he wants our boy to play for the Giants then he's gonna have to take him and sign him up himself and drive him to all the games, 'cos I don't want anything to do with that lot. I didn't want my son to get like they are – to learn to treat women like shit. And I've seen what it's done to relationships between sons and mothers when they do join the club.'

My daughter similarly described the Mullum High pecking order when she was last a student there, in 2006: ‘About half the kids were the footy heroes or else they're hangers-on. They're the so-called popular people, loud people that I would avoid and not want anything to do with mostly. Then there was an overlap between them and the surfer kids, and the rest were a pretty diverse bunch. There were a few Emos and some gamers, and the more arty kids, and they all hung together and got called the Emo group.'

Most people from the top echelon – the ‘popular' kids – would deign to talk to the ones on the bottom, my daughter told me, but those in the bottom layer were excluded from a particular kind of social life. They weren't necessarily bullied overtly; they just didn't get invited to certain parties. But a small minority of really aggro guys – and their girlfriends – were different again. They would never speak to anyone outside the football clique ‘unless they wanted something from them'. My daughter paused here, and then added matter-of-factly, ‘or unless the guys wanted to bash the shit out of someone.' This normally happened away from the school buildings, often on the oval across the road when school was over. And while push-and-shove altercations were fairly common at school, serious fights were rare, occurring, she told me, perhaps twice a year.

 

AT MULLUM HIGH Jai Morcom was involved in the so-called ‘table war', where ownership of seating at a long aluminium table was highly contested between groups of boys during recess and lunchtimes. At these relatively unsupervised times, the student population at Mullum divides itself not just by age but also by demographic.

As Heazlewood-Ross explains, this is atypical: ‘It's a bit different to other schools, I think. They kind of hang together across grade levels, so you get younger-grade kids mixing with the older ones. The Emo kids hang out in one corner of the school and play cards...you've gotta love that bunch of kids. They're a little bit more sensitive, maybe – the kind of kids who've experienced some harassment...They don't buck the system – they ignore the system. And then there's other groups who have their own particular areas. But it's not strictly a grade division like in most schools...'

What happened on 28 August, he went on to say, was probably that a group of older students had taken offence when the younger Emo group took ‘their' table at recess. A spitting match ensued, which quickly escalated. Punches were thrown. After that it gets blurry. Very blurry.

Depending on who you talk to, the table war had been going for a couple of days (the official school line) or for a month or more. The table would be carried in triumph from location to location by the rival groups of kids, and I was told by students that the table war was seen not as bullying, but rather as a big joke. One Grade 8 boy – call him Thomas – told me that he had been sitting on top of the table one August lunchtime when a bunch of rivals ‘lifted the table up with me on it and carried it to where they thought it should be'. Not only that but, in the weeks leading up to the death, Thomas (who belonged to neither clique) had been spat on by a member of Jai's inner group. What had his reaction been to having been lifted into the air on the table? ‘I just went – oh, great, woo-hoo!' he explained, grinning a wide attractive grin. ‘You know, I made a joke of it.' And to being spat on? ‘I just ignore it. People try to pick fights with me all the time, 'cos – I don't know why. Maybe 'cos I'm tall. Even tiny little guys' – and here his palm hovered around his waist in demonstration – ‘they come up and hit me. People try and start fights with me all the time. It happened in town on Saturday night. I just ignore them.'

For fourteen-year-old Thomas, a stable, loving home and engaged parents have given him the capacity to laugh off his assailants, and to clown, not rage, when the table war erupted beneath him. But stable, loving homes and engaged parents are hardly universal; they may no longer even be the norm. And for older boys accustomed to having their authority recognised on and off the football field, it must have seemed outrageous to be spat on by the school's outsiders – by one of the nerds, Emos and Koori kids who hung together in a distant corner, playing cards, ignoring the system, avoiding the jocks. Male pride can be a terribly dangerous thing and, once unleashed, almost impossible to put back in the bottle without adult help. As an anonymous statement made by one kid the police interviewed reads: ‘...and we went back to find out why [the spitting had happened] and ask for an apology...an all-in brawl invoked [sic].'

While the author of this statement claims to have been ten to fifteen metres from Jai at all times during the fight, the text also contains the words ‘sorry' and ‘regret'. The statement, which was published in a Sydney paper, and later posted on Facebook, is adolescent, confused, and reeks of expediency. Penned in the highly charged atmosphere of those early weeks, when revenge attacks threatened, it ends in pathos: ‘Two wrongs don't make a right. Peace.'

PROFESSOR ROSS HOMEL teaches criminology at Griffith University. Big schools, he told me over coffee in a Brisbane café, are bad news. Building friendly relationships is paramount in maintaining order among young people, and in big high schools with lots of small feeder schools, these relationships may simply be too many and too hard to manage effectively.

Inside schools and out, youth violence is on the rise in Australia's eastern states, and the figures in the ten-to-fourteen age bracket make for sobering reading. While overall crime rates, including for violent crime, are in decline, probably due to years of sustained economic growth, the youth figures are going in the other direction. The figures are bad but there is plenty of room for optimism, Homel countered, since ‘the gap between what we know and what we don't know is much smaller than the gap between what we know and what we actually do on the ground.' Atomised modern families are a big part of the problem, as are rampant alcohol abuse, illegal drug use and income inequality, all starkly worse in Australia than in most comparable countries. While the causes of youth violence are multiple and complex, we know a great deal about what helps at-risk teenagers to stay engaged at school and stay out of trouble. Simple interventions like those made by Deb Pearse and others at The Hut can have dramatic effects; where young people feel listened to and valued by adults, tensions quickly dissipate. Kids stay at school.

As much as anything, Professor Homel says, troubled kids need schools they can connect with and then jobs to go to – ‘meaningful activity' – just like adults do. And if their dysfunctional families fail them and institutions can't take up the slack, kids need to be provided with a range of different connections to the wider society, avenues they can take into citizenship and belonging. Failing this, they are likely to drift into a downward spiral of grog, drugs, fights, crime. These connections needn't cost a fortune. Sport is one traditional way of bringing young people into generally safe contact with each other (notwithstanding footy's alleged role in Jai Morcom's death) and there are others means, like gaming clubs and art activities, some of which have been offered by Deb Pearse at The Hut over the years.

There is no escaping the hard data showing the need for more interventions such as these. Australian boys – and to a lesser extent, girls – are frequently involved in violent conflict with their peers. Forty-four per cent of Brisbane teens surveyed in 2007 had attacked another person in some way during the previous year (though some of these attacks consisted only of ‘throwing something', presumably in some cases innocuous objects like fruit or pens). But in an environment where young men feel cut adrift, abandoned by their fathers especially, a hurled apple can be the only trigger necessary for serious conflict to erupt. ‘Some of these kids,' Heazlewood-Ross told me of his Grade 9 boys, ‘seem to have such a deep well of anger in them.'

Be it drugs, family breakdown, socioeconomic inequality or some other mix of factors at work, there is a cohort of angry young men and women in the eastern states who apparently regard violence as acceptable, or at least unavoidable, in their young lives.

On the Facebook memorial site ‘RIP Jai Morcom', scathing responses to adult bloggers sermonising about kids' violent behaviour brand adult suggestions for reform naive. One boy wrote, ‘Kids will never learn we are brout up getting bashed by our rents and watchin our mums get bashed by our faget dads.'

 

IN THE FINAL quarter of 2009, threats of payback flew around the town as Steve Drummond began to call not for calm but for better explanations, and the police commenced what would turn out to be a tortuously slow investigation. A small group of Jai's young friends – both Kooris and other boys – were taken away by the school's Aboriginal Support Worker, Scotty Sentence, for a weekend camp. The boys came back to town far more settled, most of their talk of revenge evaporated. (Some of this group have since shifted to Byron High, unable to stomach the bad memories at Mullum.) When I visited the school in December, Scotty's predecessor, Steven Strong, showed me plans to have respected local Koori men visit the school and work weekly with all the boys in the younger grades on conflict resolution and identity issues. But interventions to benefit young people and save lives cost money, money that is scarce and hard to find in the public school system. Kings School in Sydney can offer its adolescent boys a top-class education and facilities that include an air-conditioned underground rifle range, but Strong's excellent proposal to give time to troubled boys – one that made Professor Homel nearly leap out of his seat with enthusiasm when I described it to him – remains, as yet, a grossly underfunded dream.

A large mural now decorates the brick wall where Jai lost consciousness on 28 August. The graffiti memorialising him is hidden beneath a songline and kangaroo dreaming painted in mustard and red ochres by Bundjalung leader Uncle Lewis Walker, who along with Maori community leaders held a smoking ceremony for Jai in September. ‘It was just an incredible event,' Heazlewood-Ross told me, clearly still moved four months later. ‘The most striking thing about it was the presence of Uncle Lewis. He just walked into the school that morning and said: This is what's going to happen here today. This, this and this.' He paused. ‘And the authority of the man.'

Jai was of Maori descent through his father, and both his parents agreed that an Indigenous ceremony was the best way to remember their son and to help heal the fractured school. More than six hundred staff and students chose to attend the Sorry Business that September morning, sitting in the concrete quadrangle close to where Jai struck his head. The gathering maintained complete silence for the best part of an hour while the white-ochred Uncle Lewis smoked the area, and solemn Maori rituals were carried out. At one point, sitting among tearful friends and students, Steve Drummond broke down, keening in anguish. Uncle Lewis went immediately to kneel at his side and comfort him; as he did so, the male Maori elder stepped forward and sang ‘Our Father' to the motionless gathering. Later, staff and students shared a ritual meal of kangaroo and damper, served as per Maori custom, first to the family, and then to the others.

‘If you'd told me that our students would sit there with complete attention for an hour, then line up and eat kangaroo and damper – well, I would have said you were mad,' Heazlewood-Ross told me, shaking his head. ‘What I remember the most was this little ADHD boy of ours who I've never seen be still for more than about thirty seconds. He just sat there' – pointing to the corner of a garden bed – ‘and he didn't move a muscle for the whole thing. He was just riveted to the spot. We all were.'

 

DEB PEARSE, OPERATING The Hut with three functional computers on ‘the smell of the smell of an oily rag', told me that she found it a bit curious having to go to Maori and Koori cultures to memorialise Jai. It was as if, she told me, mainstream Australian culture didn't have the right ceremonies to do the situation justice. Aboriginal myself, I was not about to argue with her. I remembered as she spoke that there are no specific words in English for a parent who has lost a child. ‘Widow', yes, and ‘widower'. And ‘orphan' – for one who has lost their parents. But no name for a mother or a father who has had to put a child in the ground. No equivalent to that heartbreaking status label in more than one Indigenous language for a mother whose baby has recently died, which literally translates: she is only empty hands.

Each culture deals with death differently, of course. But across every culture – and probably in every Australian country town of several thousand souls – there remain strong men and women of outstanding leadership ability with the capacity to care for young people, and the willingness to guide them into adult society. Heazlewood-Ross, Scotty Sentence, Deb Pearse, Steve Strong and many others – these people have for years extended an umbrella of deep concern over the troubled young boys and girls of Mullumbimby. It is grossly unfair to think, as did my disaffected hitchhiker, that they don't care, or have given up. They do, and they haven't.

But things are different in Mullumbimby now. A young life is gone, and the town has changed as a result. Angry posters by Steve Drummond (Truth 4 Jai Part Three) are plastered on windows and flat surfaces throughout the town: ‘There are people responsible. They are not coming forward...the next day after the Drill Hall fighting, two of Jai's friends were attacked by carloads of youths from Mullum...Early this year a boy at Mullum High got taken away by ambulance with concussion, someone had put his head through a brick wall. Jai was not so lucky.'

Innocence has gone from the incense-flavoured township, and been replaced by a lingering suspicion between two tribes. And the language of the school has been forced to change as well. ‘When things blew up in the past, I used to use the throwaway phrase Well, it's not life-threatening,' Richard Heazelwood-Ross told me soberly as we walked past the spot where Jai had lain unconscious that August morning. ‘I don't use that phrase anymore.'

In early March, Steve Drummond delivered 1,400 letters to the Coroner's Court in Sydney, calling for an inquest into his son's death. Still refusing to heed police advice to halt his investigations, Drummond alleged that boys had brought spanners, chains and padlocks to school in August 2009 in an attempt to win the ongoing table wars that culminated in Jai's death. ‘It's quite possible that he's been thrown out of the fight and that he may have hit a brick wall,' Drummond concluded. The Coroner will decide whether to recommend an inquest into Jai Morcom's death when all submissions have been considered.

12 March 2010

From Griffith Review Edition 28: Still the Lucky Country? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review