Lawrence King is gone.
Whatever the reason.
Whatever the motive.
Whatever the aftermath.
A boy — Larry to his friends and family — is dead.
That fact will never change. That fact cannot be disputed. It can’t be argued in court. After 15 years on Earth, Larry died two days after he was shot in the head multiple times in an Oxnard classroom.
But in the aftermath of the killing of a boy seen by many as a bright, glowing figure, no simple explanations emerge.
Larry King was killed Feb. 13 at E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard. The suspect is a classmate, 14-year-old Brandon McInerney, charged with first-degree murder and the special enhancement of a hate crime. McInerney is being charged as an adult for the crime.
The attack quickly galvanized the community. The facts, of course, are murky. However, reports that King identified himself as gay and was a frequent victim of bullying and harassment have emerged, along with allegations that he had some sort of altercation about his sexuality with a group of other students only a day before the attack.
Those reports left many wondering whether enough is done in Ventura County schools to combat bullying, whether students have the information they need to cope with the emerging sexuality of adolescence and with the diversity of their peers and whether teachers and other adults are properly prepared to provide a safe environment for children to grow.
“It’s a young boy,” said Jay Smith, executive director of the Ventura County Rainbow Alliance. “I think it really doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight in this instance. A young boy goes to school, and he’s not safe in school. There’s a hate component built into this. A boy killed another boy.”
Lighting the darkness
Four days after the shooting and a day after his family took King off life support — ensuring that his organs could be donated to others — hundreds of people turned out in Ventura for a Feb. 15 candlelight vigil remembering him. The mourners included some of King’s fellow E.O. Green students, peers from a youth empowerment group, and many community members who never knew King. Gay and straight, bisexual and transgendered, old and young, most said they attended not because King was gay, but because he was so young, because his alleged attacker was so young, and because no child should go to school fearful.
“We came because it’s such a sad thing, and it happened here in Ventura County,” said Marlene Fode, a Ventura resident who came to the event with her daughter, Kaelin, a graduate of Ventura High School now attending Ventura College. “It’s a shock, and we just wanted to show our support.”
Others at the vigil expressed recognition of some of the harassment King may have faced.
“I’m gay and I went to school in Oxnard, so it’s really personal to me,” John Lemay said at the event. Lemay said he has heard that schools seem more accepting of gay individuals than when he was a student, but he called the murder a tragedy for both King and McInerney.
People like Jackie and Sheila, who only provided their first names, were at the vigil to support the gay community and to support King and Mcinerney’s family. Both are from Oxnard.
“I don’t think it’s really so much to do with sexuality,” Sheila, 28, said. “It could be religion, it could be race, it could be a lot of different aspects. Nobody really knows the exact story of what happened, yet there are a lot of rumors flying out there.”
Sheila said there are support groups in Ventura County and kids who need to talk to people about any problems they experience should reach out for someone to listen. She hoped that the tragedy of King’s death would make those venues more accessible.
Smith, of the Rainbow alliance, drew attention to his group’s youth empowerment program, a program that King himself occasionally attended. The program, Smith said, is an anonymous and confidential program that meets every Friday from 7 to 9 p.m. Youth between the ages 13 and 23 [Corrected age range replaces earlier editions and print article] are welcomed to talk about the issues they face without any adults present except for a counselor. But the youth direct what issues are discussed. Bullying, Smith said, frequently comes up in the group. It’s a safe space parents of kids questioning their sexuality can offer to their children, or a place those kids can access on their own to express their concerns.
One of the facilitators of the program is Eric Wallner, who also serves as Ventura’s cultural affairs supervisor.
“I have the privilege every week of coming to the center and working with an incredible group of young people who are very impacted by what’s happening and very saddened,” Wallner said. “I just wanted to say that they are amazing people and they will continue to be amazing people and they will be out in the community. Now is a really important time for us as adults to step up and really shape what kind of community we want to live in.”
The language we use
Before the vigil, as crowds gathered outside Ventura’s Art Barn before a series of speeches and a quiet walk to the Ventura Pier, Jarrod Schwartz, the executive director of Just Communities, Central Coast, a non-profit organization based in Santa Barbara, talked with Shannon Nash of the LGBTQ Family Center; Angelica Hernandez, a high school student; Jenny Chadwell, who traveled from San Luis Obispo to show support for her girlfriend; and Sarah McElhatton, a lesbian who discussed what it was like to experience harassment at school.
“It goes beyond intolerance,” Schwartz said. “I think it’s an issue of social justice. We have a homophobic society and a society where heterosexism runs rampant.
Schwartz said there needs to be more teaching of justice in schools.
“I think part of the problem is our schools do a good job of talking about tolerance but we don’t really look at justice and we don’t really look at how safe is our culture for people who are gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, and I think that’s where our conversation really needs to go,” he said.
Nash, meanwhile, said there should be mandatory in-service sessions for school officials to understand the language children are using to describe one another. Meanwhile, she said, adults need to take responsibility for what is happening in the world around them.
“This is not by circumstance just because it’s Oxnard or just because it’s Ventura County,” she said. “This is kind of a nationwide epidemic where we’re talking about people not using the appropriate language with one another and not treating each other as humans. It goes beyond even gay and transgender issues. It’s fear based. It’s all fear-based.”
More importantly, Nash said, the consequences of that fear erupting effect more than gay individuals such as King.
“Violence is not a partisan issue,” she said. “There were other kids in that classroom. Other kids had to watch somebody get shot in the head. That’s a very traumatic and lifelong experience that they’ll never ever be able to erase. Why would you put any child through that? Violence simply needs to be stopped and it starts with teachers and counselors and the adults in the vicinity knowing and keeping an eye on what’s going on and not abdicating that responsibility. That’s really the bottom line here and it can’t be abdicated to anyone.”
McElhatton said her initial reaction to the shooting was angry and violent, but she recognized that those responses don’t remedy the situation.
“I think initially the most anyone can do is work within their own families and directly within their own communities,” she said. “I’m really lucky to have had a family that was completely open and completely welcoming. Whether or not they understood the issues they weren’t going to throw me out, they weren’t going to disown me, so I think that it really starts at home.”
Schwartz said gays and lesbians are treated as second-class citizens in society and in schools.
“Our school curriculum are not validating any sexuality besides heterosexuality,” he said.
So much was clear in Hernandez’s experience in Santa Barbara high schools.
“people use ‘gay, fag, whatever.’ Assumptions are made at school dances and stuff that your date is going to be heterosexual and if you put down as your date the same sex you get weird looks, even by the staff at school. It’s not just all about teens and teens causing this oppression.”
In the classroom
How then do schools respond? What can they do to make sure King’s death wasn’t in vain and that other students don’t live in fear of their lives?
Chuck Weiss, the Ventura County Superintendent of Schools, said the county school system will focus on three areas: efforts to teach tolerance, such as its established “world of difference” program; redoubling its Creating Asset Rich Environments for children and youth, or CARE, program; and re-examining peer mediation programs.
The CARE program is a major effort. It was a 24-month study of bullying, alcohol and drug use, teen suicide and gang membership (results of the study are available on the county school board Web site at #www.vcss.k12.ca.us#). The study, Weiss said, found a “common antidote” to these problems: a caring environment for students so they will be resilient as they go through school and into their lives.
“Every child in our county needs to have a positive adult mentor that will guide them in the right direction,” Weiss said. “When they do that they don’t bully, they don’t use drugs, they don’t join gangs, they don’t smoke they don’t drink.”
A community meeting about the shooting was scheduled after this story’s deadline for the night of Feb. 19. Ways the district can respond will also be addressed at the next county school board meeting on Feb. 22. Weiss will also attend a community rally on Feb. 23 at 9 a.m. in Oxnard. The event is hosted by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Oxnard and will allow all members of the community to learn how they can get involved to prevent violence in schools and other parts of the community.
Asked what challenges the school district has implementing programs such as CARE and peer-mentoring efforts, Weiss said there simply was not enough money in California for schools to have the staff needed to provide a positive environment for children.
“It takes a positive champion adult to get this started and in place,” Weiss said. “We need to get serious as adults and say to our legislators we have got to do better by our children.”
Weiss said it’s not really true that times are tough, and one needs only look at the type of houses people are living in, the cars they are driving and the clothes they are wearing to question their priorities.
“We have to say we need to stop investing in ‘me’ and start investing in them,” he said. “The adults in this state just have not done our job. Your job is supposed to be to protect a child … I think the thing is it’s all about the fact that our children deserve better. Our children deserve a more positive, caring environment.”
When it comes to sexual identity issues in schools, Weiss said different places will need to take different measures to ensure that kids feel safe. The law says students must be protected from harassment based on their sexual orientation, or for any number of other factors such as race, gender, disability or faith. Now the school board needs to address how well-trained its schools are.
“We believe we have more work to do and it’s going to take a collaborative effort for everyone in and around schools,” he said. “Even if you don’t have kids or grandkids, these are still the people who are going to grow up and work in our businesses and lead our government. If we can’t invest in them, who would we invest in? If this horrible tragedy has spurred you to act then that’s a good thing.”
In the courtroom
So how does anyone bring justice for a crime such as this? What special considerations need to be made when making a boy barely 14-years-old face the same consequences as a full-grown man?
Prosecutor Maeve Fox, who is trying the case, would not speak about the details of the case or why the hate crime enhancement was added. While the district attorney has tried other youth as adults in murder cases, she said this case is unique.
“We’ve never had a school shooting like this one,” Fox said. But she cautioned that the case will be tried like any other the district attorney’s office handles. “We’re going to do what we do in every case, which is we take them all individually.”
Fox said that the prosecution is open to defense attorney Brian Vogel’s position in this case. Both sides are still awaiting reports about the facts of this case, and those may determine whether or not Mcinerney ultimately ends up tried as an adult or a child.
Regardless, she said, all the passion in the community that has erupted in the aftermath of the shooting won’t necessarily affect how she pursues the case. Despite media attention and public outcry, she said the facts will drive the case.
“We do our best to make sure we have the actual facts, not the facts that are floating around out there in the newspapers,” she said. “We base our decisions on the law and our ethical obligations and do the best we can.”
On the other side of the courtroom, Vogel must also cut through the media scrutiny of the case to best represent his client, McInerney. Like Fox, he wouldn’t discuss the facts of the case, but he did say he would challenge the decision to prosecute his client as an adult.
“He’s barely a 14-year-old child (Children under 14 cannot be tried as an adult – McInerney turned 14 only in late January),” Vogel said. “There’s significant differences between adults and adolescents and their cognitive abilities, mentally, emotionally and physically. He’s not allowed to drink, drive or vote and there are good reasons for that. For the same reasons this child is not allowed to drink, drive or vote he shouldn’t be treated as an adult in court.”
Even the Rainbow Alliance is cautious about describing the shooting as a hate crime.
“We don’t really know that,” Smith said. “We need to let the process of law do that. Personally we knew the boy. We knew he was a gay kid. He was struggling with the same sexual identity issues any 15-year-old does. There’s a lot of misinformation out there still. We’re going to wait until the trial and see where we go from there.”
As the legal issues are sorted out, the community must still determine how it will respond to this tragedy.
“The evening was bittersweet, because unfortunately it’s evenings like Friday night that get us talking about these things,” Smith said.
Smith believes the community can’t just pursue tolerance, it must learn acceptance.
“Acceptance is more of saying ‘you know what, there’s room for everybody on the planet. Our differences don’t matter, it’s what makes us so unique,’” he said. Schools need to do a better job of focusing diversity training on gay and lesbian training, he said. When it comes to acceptance, they face specific issues that aren’t the same as other groups that face harassment, and better communication could help.
To bring change, adults have to be more involved and more communicative with children, Smith said.
“A lot of it has to come from the parents,” he said. “If parents were truly moved by what was going on and so shocked, then they need to move this forward. It’s really a message for the parents and the administrators. At some point we’ve allowed too much to happen … Every kid sees themselves as different, there just needs to be a lot of dialogue.”