Saturday, February 16, 2008

Two Lives :Two Stories

Dear Family, Friends & Allies,

This has been a week of tragedy in our schools. Most people are aware of the shootings on the campus of Northern Illinois University in which 5 students were murdered and many others wounded. But there was another school shooting this past that has gone unnoticed, under-reported and almost forgotten after the initial reports came out.

At 8:30 AM this past Tuesday morning, 22 students at E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard, California entered a computer lab for their first class of the day. Within moments of arriving, 14-year old Brandon McInerney came up behind 15-year old Lawrence King and shot the youngster once in the back of the head and then once again in the back. On Wednesday, Lawrence King was pronounced brain-dead but was not taken off life-support as those who knew Lawrence were sure that Lawrence would want to be an organ donor. Following the harvesting of Lawrence's organs, life-support was removed and Lawrence was pronounced dead on Thursday.

Brandon McInerney, 14-years old, is about to be charged, as an adult, with premeditated murder. The prosecutor plans to also charge him with committing a hate-crime. As a result of this, Brandon will be facing a mandatory 50+ years in prison.

The reason Mr. McInerney is being charged with a hate-crime, and I believe the reason the story of a fatal killing in a middle-school stopped being covered by the media, is that it quickly became clear to everyone that Lawrence King was shot...executed really, because Lawrence was not only gay, but transgender.

The story of both of these young lives, and the influences and prejudices they encountered deserves to be told. This did not have to happen,. Not only did this not have to happen, it was an obvious inevitability to anyone paying attention that it would happen and sadly, will happen again if we don't take this seriously.

Please read the newspaper report below related to this tragic event, and then please look for a follow-up from me soon with additional information and a request for help in telling this American story. It is a story we all will face and must face every day.

Peace & Unity,

Jenn Burleton
Executive Director
TransActive Education & Advocacy

West Coast Sector Coordinator,
Board Member, PFLAG-Transgender Network

Recipient: The Ingersoll Center "2007 Service Award"

Slain teen remembered as fun, quirky at Rainbow Ventura County Star - Camarillo, CA, USA
Alliance candlelight vigil
By Anna Bakalis, Cheri Carlson
Saturday, February 16, 2008

Blue was Lawrence King's favorite color eye shadow.

Along with his signature black, high-heeled boots and varying shades of lipstick, friends say he wore dramatic makeup and dressed more flamboyantly in the last two weeks before he was shot to death by a classmate at an Oxnard middle school.

The cosmetics added a quirkiness to his personality, friends said. But they didn't define the 15-year-old boy Melissa Castillo knew.

"He didn't know he had a lot of friends," Castillo said. "We all thought he was funny but not in a mocking way. We all really liked him. I wish he knew that."

Castillo was standing with four of her friends at a candlelight vigil to honor Larry King, held in Ventura Friday night.

The 15-year-old E.O. Green Junior High School eighth-grader was perceived by classmates as a gay or cross-dressing student who had been bullied.

"He didn't have to tell me; I saw it. We all saw it," Castillo said.

The shooting on Tuesday has brought scrutiny to how middle schools in Ventura County address and prevent discrimination that can lead to violence toward teens with different sexual orientations or gender identities.

In the days leading up to his death, King was helping Castillo get ready for the school Valentine's Day dance, she said. Castillo is the co-president of the Associated Student Body.

"He'd come up to me with different ideas for the dance," she said. "He thought about getting a photo booth."

Castillo said King had been transferred to her gym class — from eighth to sixth period — because he was getting picked on. In gym class, he would wear regular clothes with sneakers, she said.

'Wanted to respond'

The Ventura County Rainbow Alliance sponsored the vigil at the Art Barn where about a hundred people gathered, some with candles to remember King.

"Our community wanted to respond to express and honor him," said Alice Woods, a coordinator with the Rainbow Alliance.

"Any 15-year-old is finding out who they are. It's normal to experiment in any direction," she said.

King was shot Tuesday morning inside a computer lab at the school. He was declared brain dead on Wednesday and taken off life support Thursday night. Prosecutors have charged a classmate, Brandon McInerney, 14, with first-degree murder and committing a hate crime and want him tried as an adult.

Students have said King was teased because he was gay. Some classmates also reported a confrontation between the two boys in the days before the shooting.

Authorities have not released details on a motive, and prosecutors have declined to elaborate on the hate crime charge. A hate crime is defined as an illegal action taken toward a person based on any of several criteria, such as race, religion or sexual orientation.

School officials in Ventura County said Friday they have several programs designed to teach middle school students about tolerance and acceptance. But schools need to do more, said county Superintendent of Schools Charles Weis.

For example, he said, schools need to have more mentors and other adults who can help students find constructive ways to deal with their emotions.

"I wonder, if this kid had an outlet for his anger or his fear, whatever it was, whether this would have happened," Weis said of the shooting. "I really feel one of the reasons kids in large schools act in a variety of ways is they don't have caring adults to reach out to."

State Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, whose district includes the 1,168-student Oxnard school, wrote a bill that took effect Jan. 1 and prohibits discrimination in the classroom based on gender identity, sexual orientation or disability.

"The fact that he (King) was being harassed indicated to me there was a larger danger looming for him," Kuehl said. "Words can lead to violent actions. And very often, if no one says, This will not be tolerated,' then nothing stops it."

Middle school "is a difficult age to teach tolerance," said Jerry Dannenberg, superintendent of the Hueneme School District, which includes E.O. Green School.

An effective program works with kids beginning in kindergarten, he said, and follows them throughout school. Hueneme schools use such a program, called Second Step, which focuses on violence prevention and social and emotional learning.

Schools cannot work on this issue alone, however. Tolerance education has to come from all aspects of society, Dannenberg said.

Students have started gay-straight groups in 640 high schools throughout California, including a dozen in Ventura County, according to the Gay-Straight Alliance Network.

That's nearly 50 percent of high schools in the state, said network Executive Director Carolyn Laub, a statistic that speaks to growing support and acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students in upper grades.

Only 14 middle schools in California have such clubs, and none are in Ventura County.

Laub said it has become clear that sexual orientation and harassment issues need to be addressed in middle schools. "Young people are coming out at earlier and earlier ages," she said.

Many tolerance programs in middle schools have traditionally focused on racial and religious discrimination. For the most part, Laub said, teachers, administrators and students haven't had as much training on how to create a safer school climate for students dealing with sexual identity issues.

Some surveys show students report higher rates of harassment in middle school than in high school, she said.

'Not died in vain'

According to the California Healthy Kids Survey by WestEd, a nonprofit research group, 10 percent of Ventura County seventh-graders, 9 percent of ninth-graders and 7 percent of 11th-graders reported harassment based on actual or perceived sexual orientation.

"Finding ways to talk about differences as part of the regular curriculum is very important," said Debra Chasnoff, a San Francisco-based documentary filmmaker working on creating tolerant and inclusive learning environments.

"There are students like Lawrence in every school. To be gender nonconforming, you don't do it lightly at that age," Chasnoff said. "There had to be something powerful going on inside of him."

Middle school is a harder time than high school for many students as they try on different roles and personalities, said Mary Galvin, operations director of the Ventura Charter School of Arts and Global Education, a K-8 public charter school. Galvin said there's also pressure to raise test scores, and the money is not there to hire more counselors.

Teachers, administrators and students all need more training to solve conflicts on campus, Laub said.

"I hope Larry has not died in vain," Laub said. "We need to grieve, and then we need to look at this so that this doesn't happen again."

— Staff writers Jean Cowden Moore and Kathleen Wilson contributed to this report.

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