Last week, the South Coast was shocked by the murder of a 15-year-old Oxnard student. Just two days before Valentine’s Day, Lawrence King was sitting in his school computer lab when a classmate put a gun to his head. Two days later, the 14-year-old boy was charged with premeditated murder, fire-arm use, and a hate crime.
Lawrence King’s classmates at E. O. Junior High told the L.A. Times that King self-identified as gay and, in the past two weeks, had increased his use of feminine attire, including makeup, nail polish and high heels. According to one student, King may have expressed romantic feelings toward accused shooter Brandon David McInerney earlier that week. After a confrontation on February 12, McInerney shot King. The following day, King was declared brain-dead.
The Oxnard community has had a strong response to the death of the junior high student, holding a student-organized peace march running 1,000 strong, participating in a vigil organized by the Ventura County Rainbow Alliance, and setting up a fund in King’s name. In Santa Barbara, a candlelight vigil will be held on Friday evening in the Courthouse Sunken Gardens. Meanwhile, people across the nation are crying out for the teaching of tolerance and acceptance in public schools.
The death of Lawrence King was a wake-up call to the community not only about gay rights, but about the morals and values our youth hold – or perhaps, lack. In a press release on February 12, State Senator Sheila Kuehl (D-23) stated, “This killing also raises a larger concern, because the danger that loomed over Lawrence King still threatens other students, and we must raise our voices to be sure that no more lives are lost and no more communities are so devastated.” Beyond merely preventing violence for those who do not fit into the mold, we need to address the acceptance of differences.
A government study reports 97 percent of all youth report hearing anti-gay remarks in public schools. It’s not surprising that youth throw around words like “gay” with negative connotation when no one is stepping forward to stop them. Likewise, the teasing of classmates for dress, financial status, gender, and physical appearance continues as usual.
We can’t continue pointing fingers. For youth to truly think about all of these issues, a speech by the principal is not going to make the connection. People – and in particular, youth – need to be in an environment where acceptance is consistently the norm. A 2005 nationwide study by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network agreed, stating that “the presence of supportive school staff contributed to a greater sense of safety and fewer school absences among gay and lesbian students.”
In junior high, most teens are just trying to fit in, and they need a space where they can be supported for their differences. Many of the current programs focus on “at-risk” kids, with the rest of the school content not to be “part of the problem.” An entire segment of the school population is ignorant of what others have to face. If people truly want a community where we can accept each other, we need to teach and support those ideals for everyone.
The death of Lawrence King was tragic, but the community can work to stop the violence from happening again. Hopefully, people will continue to advocate for compassion and understanding long after the headlines fade.