Prompted by the fatal classroom shooting of an Oxnard student that prosecutors allege was a hate crime, a state legislator Monday announced plans to introduce a bill to expand diversity education in California schools.
Assemblyman Mike Eng (D-Monterey Park), chairman of the Assembly Select Committee on Hate Crimes, said his bill would supplement existing criminal statutes regarding crimes against victims based on their 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.
Prosecutors said Lawrence King, 15, was shot Feb. 12 by classmate Brandon McInerney, 14, in front of other students at E.O. Green Junior High School.
McInerney was charged last week with premeditated murder with a special allegation of a hate crime. He will be tried as an adult. He remains in custody at Ventura County Juvenile Hall and faces up to 50 years to life in prison if convicted.
Prosecutors have declined to discuss the motive in the case. But several students said that King had argued with other boys, including McInerney, the day before the shooting in a dispute concerning King's sexual orientation.
Students said King had recently revealed that he was gay and had begun wearing makeup and feminine accessories with his school uniform.
On Saturday, more than 1,000 students and parents staged a peace march in Oxnard to pay tribute to King.
Supporters of Eng's bill said they hope that the notoriety of the case may help get legislation passed in 2008.
"Race and religion are more readily acknowledged as unacceptable reasons for treating someone in a negative way, but when you talk about sexual orientation it's more commonly seen that there will be fear, harassment and, oftentimes, violence," said Robin Toma, executive director of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission.
"All students need to feel like they're safe," Toma said.
Eng said his bill would help develop a procedure for teachers and administrators to notify counselors or law enforcement when they learn of student harassment that suggests a potential hate crime.
"We need to look at protocols to make sure that students are protected from violence," Eng said. "Current law requires teachers, physicians and counselors to report possible sexual impropriety with youth, but we don't have protocols dealing with hate crimes that could possibly result in violence."
State Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), California's first openly gay legislator, helped pass a state law nine years ago that banned discrimination against and harassment of gay students.
Kuehl, whose district includes Oxnard, said Monday that numerous programs exist to teach faculty and students about celebrating differences among students and embracing tolerance and diversity.
If Eng's bill helps get such programs adopted statewide, then schools may become safer, Kuehl said.
"The schools, I think, would very much like these programs for their students and teachers, but they are having trouble finding the funds," Kuehl said Monday. "The truth is, this sort of training is needed in every school."
Hueneme School District officials have scheduled the first official parent/community meeting following King's slaying for tonight at 7 p.m. in the gym at Hueneme High School, 500 Bard Road, in Oxnard.