February 12 marks the one-year anniversary of the murder of Larry King, an eighth-grade student at E.O. Greene Middle School in Oxnard, Calif., who was shot in the back of the head, in class, by another eighth-grader named Brandon McInerney.
Every tragedy, every act of violence is complicated in its detail. This school shooting, and the circumstances that led to it, raised a host of issues—whether Brandon will be tried as an adult under California's Hate Crimes Law; how adults in contact with Larry and Brandon responded, or should have responded, to signs of trouble in each of these young lives; how easily minors in this country have access to guns; and why young people resort to violence as a response to conflict.
In the midst of all the questions, however, one simple fact remains. In the wake of teasing from friends about flirtatious comments Larry made to him, Brandon shot Larry in the back of the head at point blank range. And, from now on, February 14 will always have a different resonance for anyone affected by this event. Larry was taken off life support and died on Valentine’s Day.
For advocates working to end the bias, bullying and harassment directed at lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students in our schools, the murder of Larry King was the nightmare scenario come to pass. For years, GLSEN has sought to alert educators and the public to the daily reality of anti-gay language and harassment in our schools, and to the potential for this pervasive denigration to lead to more serious acts of violence. Nearly 75% of high school students report hearing “faggot” or “dyke” frequently or often at school. More than one in five LGBT students has been assaulted at school. One in five….
There is undoubtedly a continuum along which casual name-calling leads to violence. But there is little to stop behavior from moving across this continuum if concerned adults do not respond clearly, unequivocally and immediately to all forms of name-calling, bullying and harassment that they witness. Unfortunately, research shows that they generally do not. In a recent survey of LGBT students, a disturbing 82.4% reported that staff intervened only some of the time or never when homophobic comments were made in their presence.
It may be a lot to ask that schools be better at this than the rest of society. Barely a month goes by without new evidence of the acceptance of homophobic language as the lingua franca of contempt in this country. January 2009 was no exception. Rush Limbaugh, still not fully repudiated by Republicans as a conservative spokesperson, has a reflexive penchant for the phrase “grab the ankles” to describe any defeat in the arena of political or policy debate. He repeated that trope to describe what “bi-partisanship” really meant for Republicans in the stimulus debate. As heated political campaigns play out in communities and in the local and national media, there is frequently a corresponding surge in anti-LGBT incidents of violence and crime. In fact, the number of anti-LGBT hate crimes has continually risen since 2006, even while hate crimes have declined overall. Clearly we have far to go before everyone in this nation is taught the fundamental message of respect.
Some schools work hard to address name-calling, bullying and any kind of physical harassment. In the face of such an entrenched societal prejudice, however, targeted and specific action on anti-LGBT language and behavior is necessary to get these students back on an even playing field. Yet many state legislatures and school systems resist the need to specifically name sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories in their anti-bullying policies and statutes. Perhaps this is why, one year after Larry’s tragic murder, over 60% of LGBT youth continue to feel unsafe in school.
If only the United States approached education for young people in this country in the same spirit that it does the education of young people abroad. Since 2004, the U.S. State Department has taught English to 32,000 students in 50 countries through an after-school program designed to promote an appreciation for American culture and democratic values – among them, apparently, diversity, tolerance and compromise. As one Egyptian graduate of the program recently told a reporter, “the most important idea I learned is to respect differences.” If only.