Here in southern California where I live, Lawrence's murder at an Oxnard middle school sent a huge tremor of horror through students and educators - precisely because the Los Angeles Unified School District was probably the first in the country to see the problem coming, and to attempt to do something about it. Let's face it - 15-year-old Lawrence wasn't just killed, he was assassinated. Fourteen-year-old Brandon McInerney walked right up to him in the computer lab and put bullets into his head, hit-man style. The message couldn't be clearer.
As a former commissioner of education in LAUSD (1996-99), and someone who has worked with at-risk LGBT youth in the school district, I think that many Americans are in desperate need of a closer perspective on violence at school and how our society has been fumbling it.
Every time a school shooting happens, everybody wrings their hands and says, "This has to stop!" But the shootings keep happening. And they are not a new thing. Indeed, the conservative 1950s saw the first tremors of juvenile violence emerging at school - unforgettably portrayed in that landmark film The Blackboard Jungle. To date, in the U.S., there have been 45 on-campus massacres with guns - count 'em. The first was in Austin, TX in 1966. Since then, the frequency of shootings has stepped up like a dreadful crescendo, especially since the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999 - which was ten years ago already. More than half the shootings - 27 of them - happened just since Columbine. Two days after King's murder, shooting #46 happened at Northern Illinois U, leaving 5 students and the killer dead.
In short, the pace is picking up, and enough people have been murdered at American schools to equal the casualties of a small civil war. But America is still in the hand-wringing stage -- still pretending like we don't know what we have to do. It's clear that educators, families, communities, churches and law enforcement must all share the huge responsibility for stopping this terrible trend.
In my opinion, the place to start stopping it is right at school.
King's shooting has got the anti-gun lobby in full cry once again. But taking away people's guns is not the answer. At school, metal detectors and cops in the hallways and searches for weapons are not the answer. Why? Because the bullies can come to school and kill their victims with baseball bats - with cafeteria forks or sharp pencils, even with their fists and feet. And they can do this in the boys' bathroom in the blink of an eye, when the school cops aren't watching. As Eddie Izzard said, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." So we have to get the bullies, not the weapons, out of school.
The dynamics of college-campus shootings may be different than those at K-12 schools, where kids are younger. Bullying and powerful cliques have a more devastating impact on younger egos. Indeed, I think that the influence of cliques is often under-scrutinized - the media and the public prefer to focus their outrage on a "lone criminal with a gun." But often a student who is egged on by friends and buddies will explode into a violent act that he or she might not have committed if left alone. I say "she" because a growing number of assaults against other students are now being committed by girls, and cliques of girls.
News reports indicate that King was bullied not only at E. O. Green Junior High but a previous school as well. Law enforcement may have to investigate whether other kids at the school egged McInerney on, or knew that something was coming down. At lunch the day before the murder, a student was overheard telling King that he'd better watch his back. McInerney himself was heard to say that the next day would be King's last. That tells me that other kids may have known something, but said nothing. So a clique may have been a factor in this crime.
School principal Joel Lovstedt told the Los Angeles Times, "There was some teasing but we were working on it and [King] had met with counselors before. And we met with other, with classmates, about picking on people." But obviously E. O. Green's counseling was not effective enough to keep the "picking" from escalating into pulling a trigger.
As violence has gradually swamped the hallways and playgrounds at American schools, the growing brutality against LGBT students right on campus has emerged as a glaring concern for some. When I was a commissioner in LAUSD, bullying and gay-bashing was already a huge issue -- long before the Columbine massacre ever happened. In the 1980s LAUSD was the first U.S. school district to realize that there was a sizeable LGBT population among its 700,000 students - and many of these were dropping out of school because of bullying and assaults at school.
So in 1988 the L.A. Board of Education started taking action. First they approved the launch of Project 10, a landmark LGBT counseling program that is now available in most high schools in LAUSD. The following year, 1989, the Board adopted a formal policy that LGBT students have the right to be safe at school. A few years later, to solidify the safety policy, the Board approved four continuation programs around the district where LGBT drop-outs could get back into the classroom and get their high-school diplomas. One of these programs, EAGLES Center in West L.A., was where I helped with the volunteer teaching of 42 LGBT students, mostly black and Latino boys, for six months.
By 1999 LAUSD's protective policy was expanded to all of California by AB 222, the Dignity for All Students Act, sponsored by openly lesbian Senator Sheila Kuehl. AB 222 covered gender-variant students as well as gay, lesbian and bi. So technically Lawrence King was shielded by this law.
The religious right have fought tooth and nail to torpedo the state law, along with any district policies protecting LGBT students. Generally the righters want their own kids to be safe at school, but they don't give a hell about anybody else's kids - least of all the LGBT kids. National organizations like the Christian Coalition have threatened, lobbied, litigated and interfered directly in district elections and district affairs. Lou Sheldon even had LAUSD's gay-protective programs investigated by Congress on grounds that they are aimed at "homosexual recruiting." My fellow LGBT commissioners and I were among those investigated. Congress took no action against the programs, but the religious right are like the Terminator -- they never give up on trying to do you in.
Passing that state law to protect our students took an enormous effort of several years. But implementing it and enforcing it at the campus level, on a daily basis, is a different kind of effort. Right in our own district, schools ran the gamut, from those that cared about their LGBT students, to those that maintained a callous attitude. In 1999 we commissioners were told by the LAUSD office charged with tracking school crime statistics that they suspected gay-bashing was the most under-reported offense by far. Either the victims were afraid to report it, or school authorities didn't bother to report because they simply didn't care - or the school was trying to handle the problem privately and didn't want a "blot" on its record.
The fact is - when school administrators find bullying going on, they often refuse to see the speeding train coming straight at them. Yet they usually get advance warning on a bully or clique of bullies and who the victim is. But they fail to act immediately -- to suspend the problem students and get them out of the school without any delay. Why? Because they don't want to deal with the angry parents of one bullying kid, or the parents of an entire bullying clique, especially parents with political juice. They also don't want to deal with local church conservatives who insist that protecting LGBT students is equal to saying that homosexuality is OK. Not to mention the fact that every student not in school that day is ADA money that the school doesn't get. Teachers, too, are often afraid to speak out against bullies, because they know that teachers are assaulted at school as well.
So there are many reasons why a principal or director takes the line of least resistance, and lets the bullies stay in school. Sooner or later, the crime finally happens.
America needs to take its cue here from medicine. When doctors diagnose a small malignant cancer, they don't wait till that disease has spread through the whole body. They go in right away and cut out the cancer. Students who bully or assault other students for any reason are a social cancer that simply has to be cut away from the school institution. It's called zero tolerance. If a school finds that it has an entire clique of kids that is making other students' lives miserable, then they must remove the clique.
Once the problem kids have been removed from the "general population," teaching them that their lives will be toast if they go on bullying others will not be easy. The Brandon McInerneys should be clapped into a special school where they can get intensive counseling as well as finish their K-12 education. Their budding anger against the world has to be identified and dealt with. Often their families will have to be counseled as well, and held responsible for their own attitudes that they've taught their kids. Kids who bully other kids might grow up to bully their spouses, their own children and other people as well, so it will be worth it to nip their bullying in the bud.
Hopefully many of these problem kids can be moved to change their attitudes. While we may not be able to stop every single school murder from happening these days, we can surely stop more of them if we act on those first warning signs.
I also think it's important to put criminal liability on cliques where it's appropriate. Often a popular school clique gets carried away with what it sees as its enormous power. Its members convince themselves that they don't have to answer for their collective actions. Recently on her TV show, Judge Judy Scheindlin heard a case involving two girls who had stood by and egged another girl to beat up a fourth girl. One of the two bystander girls was smirking and unremorseful, and Judge Judy ripped into her. She told her that she was lucky she wasn't appearing in a family-court case that had come before Scheindlin years ago, where a female student had actually been battered to death as the result of egging-on by other girls.
"I sentenced one girl in that clique to 30 years," Judge Judy barked at the smirker, "and my conviction was held up on appeal." The judge's point was this: bystanders can be as guilty as perpetrators, if they actively add into the situation that ends in a brutal crime.
Bullying and cliques have been around American schools forever. But in the 1950s rural Montana where I attended high school -- where gun laws were liberal and most families had firearms lying around openly at home - it never occurred to any of us students to take a gun to school and shoot someone we didn't like. We confined ourselves to name-calling and spitballs and the occasional fist fight. So bullying was routinely survivable in the 1950s. Today bullying has gone so far over the top, that it is not even reliably survivable.
Indeed, it is time for school administrations to stop listening to all the anti-gay churchy fanatics who actually want the threat of death or maiming at school to lie in wait for all the Lawrence Kings out there. The religious right, from Sheldon and other leaders right down to local groups who harass school boards and principals, share a real responsibility for Lawrence King's death. I view them as the most despicable kind of clique - they are adults with enormous social and political power who egg kids to commit acts of violence by telling them that God hates their victims.
As for McInerney himself - if he is found guilty on all charges, his life is over. He will be prosecuted as an adult and may be looking at 50+ years to life - 25 for premeditated murder, 25 for the firearm, and possibly 3 for the hate crime. But McInerney's conviction will not bring justice for Lawrence King. All it will do is prove that our country is teaching kids to kill at school, not to read and write.
Will Lawrence King's death be a turning point in school violence -- not only violence over gender and orientation, but violence over any other issue that prompt kids to brutalize each other? Will King's assassination prompt a national examination of conscience? Or will it become a footnote -- a lonely memorial of teddy bears and flowers near one school in Ventura County, and a few editorials in the gay press?
My prediction is this: if effective steps aren't taken, King's murder will be followed by many more. You can count on it.
Contact info for Project 10:
Judy Chiasson, Coordinator
Human Relations, Diversity, and Equity
Los Angeles Unified School District
333 S. Beaudry Ave., 16th Floor
Los Angeles, CA 90017