Gay teen murder illustrates US schools' challenge

By GREG RISLING

LOS ANGELES (AP) -

There were many missed opportunities to prevent the murder of a 15-year-old gay student who was shot in the head in front of stunned classmates.

Defense lawyers say the shooter, then 14-year-old Brandon McInerney, had reached an emotional breaking point after Larry King, wearing heels and makeup, made repeated, unwanted sexual advances toward him and other boys.

Teachers and students saw the simmering feud between the teens but said administrators at California's E.O. Green Junior High School ignored the concerns, and people did little to intervene. King's mother said she pleaded with school officials to help tone down her son's increasingly flamboyant behavior. On the other hand, one teacher encouraged King to explore his sexuality and gave him a dress.

Nearly four years later, the death illustrates the difficulty U.S. schools have in protecting gay students' civil rights while teaching tolerance to those who feel threatened by someone who's different.

"Something was brewing, and lots of people were uncomfortable and people didn't know what to do and where to turn," said Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network.

The now 17-year-old McInerney pleaded guilty this week to second-degree murder and two other counts for killing King, which will send him to prison for 21 years. He's scheduled to be sentenced next month.

Testimony during the trial centered on McInerney's growing rage. Prosecutors said at least six people heard him make threats against King in the days before the shooting, including one who said the teen told him he planned to kill King.

In the weeks before the shooting, school administrators allowed King to wear heels and makeup because federal law provides the right of students to express their sexual orientation.

King's mother, Dawn King, said she met with school officials four days before the February 2008 shooting, hoping they would help tone down her son's behavior. She said she was told King had a civil right to explore his sexual identity.

"I knew, gut instinct, that something serious was going to happen," she told the Los Angeles Times newspaper on Monday. "They should have contained him, contained his behavior."

Hueneme School District Superintendent Jerry Dannenberg told The Associated Press he was not aware of that meeting. He said an outside investigator hired after the shooting determined there was no wrongdoing by any of the teachers or staff.

"I believe the staff did what they were supposed to do," Dannenberg said, calling it a horrific event. "If we could have changed it, we would have done it."

One teacher said she gave King her daughter's homecoming dress. Another said he did nothing when King walked around in makeup and high heels in front of McInerney the day before the shooting because he assumed a school administrator who had watched what was going on would take care of the situation.

Some teachers testified that their concerns weren't addressed by school officials when they tried to report escalating tensions between the two teens, something Dannenberg denied.

Byard's organization has created an anti-bullying policy and training to identify harassment. Last week, the group released a guide for school districts to adopt or modify policies dealing with transgender and gender nonconforming students.

"The cost of not acting when bullying and harassment occurs is astronomical," Byard said. "We lost two people because of the failure to act."

King's family has settled a wrongful death lawsuit against the school district, McInerney, a gay rights organization, a shelter and others. The suit claimed that everyone from King's teacher to his social worker failed to urge the teen to tone down flamboyant behavior.

Most details of the settlement were kept confidential. The Ventura County Star newspaper reported the majority of the settlement - just over $200,000 - was paid by a homeowner's insurance policy held by McInerney's grandfather.

A bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis is pending before the House Education and Workforce Committee that would prohibit discrimination in public schools against lesbian and gay students.

If passed, violating the Student Non-Discrimination Act could lead to districts losing federal funding. Polis said he had King and other teens like him in mind when he wrote the bill.

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