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Oxnard school's handling of gay student's behavior comes under scrutiny

Teachers testify at Brandon McInerney's trial that administrators ignored warnings that fellow student Larry King's feminized attire and taunting behavior were causing problems. McInerney is accused of killing King in a classroom.

August 11, 2011|By Catherine Saillant, Los Angeles Times
  • Larry King, 15, left, was fatally wounded while seated in a classroom at E.O. Green Middle School in Oxnard in 2008. Brandon McInerney, right, was put on trial for the killing. He was 14 at the time of the shooting.
Larry King, 15, left, was fatally wounded while seated in a classroom at…

Brandon McInerney is the defendant in the Chatsworth courtroom, accused of bringing a gun to his middle school and killing gay classmate Larry King. But as the case unfolds, the school itself has come under scrutiny.

One teacher after another has testified in the murder trial about their deep worries that King's feminine attire and taunting behavior could provoke problems — and that E.O. Green Junior High administrators ignored them.

It wasn't just that King, 15, had begun wearing makeup and women's spiked-heeled boots, witnesses testified. It was that he seemed to relish making the boys squirm at his newly feminized appearance and was taunting them with comments like "I know you want me."

"They wanted to beat Larry up for what he was doing to them and they came to me because I wanted to keep them out of trouble,'' E.O. Green teacher Jill Ekman testified. "I told them that I would work on getting assistance from the office and we would work this out."

But that didn't happen, Ekman and others testified. After days of escalating tensions between King and McInerney, McInerney, then 14, brought a handgun to the Oxnard school on Feb. 12, 2008, and shot King twice in the back of the head. King died two days later.

How school officials handled King has emerged as a major theme of McInerney's defense attorneys, who acknowledge that the boy pulled the trigger but say that he was pushed to the breaking point by King's taunts.

The trial testimony, and defense arguments that school officials mishandled the situation, highlight the struggle that many schools face: how to protect the civil rights of gay and transgender children while addressing the tensions that the issue can cause on campuses.

Assistant Principal Joy Epstein has come under criticism for allegedly being more intent on protecting King's civil rights than in acknowledging that his dress and behavior were causing problems.

"It was reported, more than once, by more than one person,'' said English teacher Dawn Boldrin. "It was documented. There is paperwork on this. She kept saying that she didn't know and she did. She knew. She did. Everybody knew."

Epstein, who testified for the prosecution, denied that anyone on the campus relayed concerns about King's safety before the shooting.

Dealing with a student who is exploring gender identity can be difficult, especially in the middle school years when students have differing levels of maturity and may be confused about their own identities, experts say. But it is a growing social issue on school campuses, said Stephanie Brill, founder and chief executive of Gender Spectrum, a Bay Area group that offers school workshops and teacher training on gender issues.

Discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender is illegal, but teachers sometimes believe that they are not trained on how to deal with those issues when they crop up, said Joel Baum, education director at Gender Spectrum.

"We hear a lot from teachers who feel handcuffed because they don't know how to respect those rights and create a safe space for children who aren't comfortable with it,'' Baum said.

In the King case, teachers testified about their concerns over King's willingness to bring attention to himself, even if it was negative. Ekman, a 21-year teaching veteran, had King in seventh grade for reading and English and knew that the school's special education plan for King urged him not to call special attention to himself.

That was why when she saw him wearing mascara and eyeliner to school in the eighth grade, she told him to wash it off, Ekman testified for the defense. King complied but returned the next day with even more makeup and a message: Epstein, the assistant principal, had told him that it was his right to wear the makeup, she told the court.

Epstein, in her testimony, said she had consulted with Hueneme Elementary School District officials about how to react to King's dress and makeup. She was told that he had the right to wear girl's items as long as they were within the district's dress code, Epstein testified.

Another assistant principal, Sue Parsons, sent an e-mail to the staff telling them to leave King alone unless his behavior was disrupting a class. Ekman said Epstein advised her to teach tolerance if students were upset by King's behavior.

But that wasn't working, Ekman said. A group of male students in her classroom told her they wanted to beat King up because he would seek them out and follow them into the bathroom. Ekman considered that sexual harassment and went back to Epstein with her concerns, she testified.

Epstein told her there was nothing the school could do, Ekman said. When the teacher attempted to press her case, Epstein shut the door in her face, Ekman told the court. The next day Ekman filed a grievance with the school's principal, Joel Lovstedt, alleging that her concerns were being ignored.

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