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Murder of gay junior high school student Larry King, 15, illustrates schools' challenge

By GREG RISLING, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES -- There were many missed opportunities to prevent the murder of a 15-year-old gay student at E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard.

Teachers and students saw a simmering feud between Brandon McInerney and Larry King but said they were either ignored by administrators or did little or nothing to intervene. King's mother said she pleaded with school officials to help tone down her son's increasingly flamboyant behavior. One teacher encouraged King to explore his sexuality and gave him a dress.

Nearly four years after McInerney, then 14, shot King in the head before stunned classmates, plenty of questions remain about what went wrong and what can be learned to prevent future tragedies.

King's death illustrates the difficulty schools have balancing a gay student's civil rights with teaching tolerance to those who feel threatened by or uncomfortable about someone who's different. It also highlighted the importance of setting clear policies to eliminate confusion among educators.

"Something was brewing and lots of people were uncomfortable and people didn't know what to do and where to turn," said Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network. "It reflects a profound inability for the adults to provide them with support and intervene when problems are developing."

McInerney, 17, pleaded guilty this week to second-degree murder and two other counts for killing King, which will send him to prison for 21 years. He's scheduled to be sentenced next month.

McInerney had reached an emotional breaking point after King made repeated, unwanted sexual advances toward him and other boys, defense lawyers said. In the weeks leading up to the shooting, school administrators allowed King to wear heels and makeup because federal law provides the right of students to express their sexual orientation.

King's mother, Dawn King, said she met with school officials four days before the February 2008 shooting hoping they would help tone down her son's behavior. She said she was told King had a civil right to explore his sexual identity.

"I knew, gut instinct, that something serious was going to happen," she told the Los Angeles Times on Monday. "They should have contained him, contained his behavior."

Hueneme School District Superintendent Jerry Dannenberg told The Associated Press he was not aware of that meeting. He said an outside investigator hired after the shooting determined there was no wrongdoing by any of the teachers or staff.

"I believe the staff did what they were supposed to do," Dannenberg said, calling it a horrific event. "If we could have changed it, we would have done it."

One teacher said she gave King her daughter's homecoming dress. Another said he did nothing when King paraded around in makeup and high heels in front of McInerney the day before the shooting because he assumed a school administrator who had watched what was going on would take care of the situation.

Some teachers also testified their concerns weren't addressed by school officials when they tried to report escalating tensions between the two teens, something Dannenberg denied.

Some observers said school districts have focused too much on meeting academic standards.

"I think schools need to take two to three steps back and look how we get along with each other as part of what they teach," said Ron Astor, a professor in social work at the University of Southern California. "It's all about academics these days and the social aspect is pushed aside."

Byard's organization has created an anti-bullying policy and training to identify harassment. They hope school districts across the nation will employ those efforts.

Last week, the group released a guide for school districts to adopt or modify policies dealing with transgender and gender nonconforming students.

"The cost of not acting when bullying and harassment occurs is astronomical," Byard said. "We lost two people because of the failure to act."

Testimony during the trial centered on McInerney's growing rage toward King. Prosecutors said at least six people heard McInerney make threats against King in the days before the shooting, including one who said the teen told him he planned to kill King.

Astor said schools need to do a better job informing students that they won't get in trouble or be ignored if they report possible threats.

"Had students felt comfortable to let an adult know he said he was going to kill somebody, I think this child's life could have been saved," Astor said.

King's family has settled a wrongful death lawsuit against the school district, McInerney, a gay rights organization, a shelter and others. The suit claimed that everyone from King's teacher to his social worker failed to urge the effeminate teen to tone down flamboyant behavior.

Most details of the settlement were kept confidential. The Ventura County Star reported the majority of the settlement - just over $200,000 - was paid by a homeowner's insurance policy held by McInerney's grandfather. Dannenberg said the district's payout amounted to "peanuts, really."

Since the shooting, counselors at the junior high help students deal with their anger and offer group sessions.

A bill introduced by Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., is pending before the House Education and Workforce Committee that would prohibit discrimination in public schools against lesbian and gay students.

If passed, violating the Student Non-Discrimination Act could lead to districts losing federal funding. Polis said he had King and other teens like him in mind when he wrote the bill.

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Can you imagine if a 14-year-old black boy had been called racial slurs, was repeatedly taunted, harassed, demeaned and disrespected by a white boy with a deformed psychology about race, with full support and collusion from the white assistant principal, and then finally one day, he pulled the trigger on the white boy, that he would receive 21 years of prison?

Never.

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