Remembering Lawrence King: An Agenda for Educators, Schools, and Scholars
by Stephen Russell - April 25, 2008
This commentary acknowledges the murder of Lawrence King, and provides information on prejudice and bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It considers the public reaction to King's murder, and discusses research on the strategies that make a difference to promote school safety for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students. It identifies important questions for future educational research.
By now, most of us have heard about the murder of Larry King, the 15-year-old middle school student who was shot at his school in Oxnard, California, on February 12. King was openly gay, and often broke gender norms at school (at times he wore make-up and nail polish). He was frequently bullied. Reports of his responses to being bullied vary: sometimes he would fight back, and other times he would brush off or try to ignore verbal insults.
He had given a valentine to his classmate, 14-year-old Brandon McInerney, several days before. McInerney, who had regularly bullied King, was enraged by the attention: he told other students that he was going to kill King before Valentines Day.
Sexual prejudice and the pressure for gender conformity weighs heavily on young adolescents. Schools are the place where youth learn about and enforce ideas and norms about gender and sexuality. Why does gender nonconformity elicit such hatred and fear? Why was McInerney so threatened by King? And why did King have a crush on the kid that repeatedly harassed and bullied him?
Writings on sexual prejudice (Herek, 2000) and the policing of gender (Butler, 1990) provide conceptual grounding to explain the motives behind this murder. Being called a fag is the worst thing that can be said to or about a middle-school aged boy (Pascoe, 2007); this name-calling is the foundation of the policing of masculinity. To be the object of a same-sex crush is so threatening to a middle school-aged boy that he feels justified to commit murder. McInerneys classmates may not have actually believed he would commit murder when he made his threats in fact, homophobic bullying may be so common that students simply didnt believe that the threat was anything more than a verbal taunt. They also did not question the logic of his actions: the motive was self-evident. That is the nature of sexual prejudice.
The public reaction has been shock and sadness, tempered with mild to heavy doses of homophobia and genderphobia. Citing a recent study by GLSEN (Kosciw & Diaz, 2006), a Time magazine commentary argues that only 18% of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students report having been bullied due to their sexual orientation (Cloud, 2008). Should we not be alarmed that nearly 1 in 5 LGBT students are physically assaulted at school due to their sexual orientation? And in its cover story, The Advocate wrote: We told Lawrence King he had the right to express his sexuality. Did we send him to his death? The magazine received strong reactions: how could a gay news magazine suggest that a return to the closet is the only answer for such violence? Meanwhile, the community in Oxnard, with communities around the country, mourned Kings death with vigils and calls for tolerance, prevention, and action.
What can educators and schools do?
Intuitively we know that caring administrators, teachers, and other school personnel create supportive school climates for all students. A small but growing body of empirical research has begun to document the things that individual teachers and students can do to promote school safety and the steps that school systems can take to create safe and supportive learning environments.
The basic first step: intentional and inclusive non-discrimination and anti-harassment school policies. Several studies now show that clear policies that specifically include attention to actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender make a difference. When students know about these policies they feel safer (OShaughnessy, Russell, Heck, Calhoun, & Laub, 2004), and students who attend schools with inclusive policies report more supportive school diversity climates (Szalacha, 2003). Further, students in states that have legislation that provides protections based on sexual orientation and gender expression also feel safer (Kosciw & Diaz, 2006). School administrators and education policy makers must take on the responsibility to ensure that these policies are in place and that students know about and understand them.
Individual educators and students may not have the power alone to change state and local education policies. However, the research indicates that some of the strongest links to school safety are the strategies that are most closely related to students everyday experiences. These strategies offer ways that school policies and personnel can make a difference, including:
training for school personnel,
access to information and resources,
support for student clubs (gay-straight alliances), and
inclusion of LGBT issues in the curriculum.
Each of these strategies has been linked to students assessments of school safety their personal safety, and safety for LGBT students (Kosciw & Diaz, 2006; OShaughnessy et al., 2004; Szalacha, 2003). Specifically, students feel safer when teachers intervene when harassment occurs, and when they have information and support at school about LGBT issues. School personnel need training and support to intervene in bias-motivated bullying and harassment, and to be able to provide information and resources for students who need it. Students are also safer in schools that have gay-straight alliances school clubs that are led by students and supported by teachers.
Finally, inclusion of LGBT issues in the curriculum makes a difference. Recent research shows that individual students both LGBT and heterosexual feel safer when LGBT issues are included in the curriculum. Further, in schools where the majority of students report learning about LGBT issues, students report less anti-LGBT bullying at school (Russell et al., 2006).
This new research has, of course, created many new questions. For the first time there is strong evidence of strategies that make a difference, but much more needs to be known about the processes that influence where, why, how, and by whom these strategies get put in place as well as the ways that these strategies actually lead to better outcomes for students. For example, at the institutional level, what factors have led to innovations in educational policy, teacher training, student support, and curriculum inclusion in some states and school districts, but not others? At the student level, why do gay-straight alliances and school curriculum matter? Do they promote awareness? Change attitudes? Provide support and resources to students? Each explanation is undoubtedly part of the answer, but further research is needed to refine our understanding of what makes a difference for students and why.
Larry Kings death has prompted renewed discussions and debates about education policy and practice. New research shows that there are specific steps that individual teachers and students can take to promote school safety and there are effective policies that school administrators and education policy makers can enact. Although we are only at the beginning of this new area of research, we do have some important answers for how educators, schools, and scholars might respond. The question that remains is whether we can muster the public will to learn from this research and from Larry Kings death and work toward safe and supportive schools for all youth.
Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.
Cloud, J. (2008, February 18). Prosecuting the gay teen murder. Time.
Herek, G. M. (2000). The psychology of sexual prejudice. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(1), 1922.
Kosciw, J. G., & Diaz, E. M. (2006). The 2005 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation's schools. New York: GLSEN.
OShaughnessy, M., Russell, S. T., Heck, K., Calhoun, C., & Laub, C. (2004). Safe place to learn: Consequences of harassment based on actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender non-conformity and steps for making schools safer. San Francisco, CA: California Safe Schools Coalition.
Pascoe, C. J. (2007). Dude, you're a fag: Masculinity and sexuality in high school. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Pringle, P., & Saillant, C. (2008, March 8). A deadly clash of emotions before Oxnard shooting. Los Angeles Times.
Russell, S. T., Kostroski, O., McGuire, J. K., Laub, C., & Manke, E. (2006). LGBT issues in the curriculum promotes school safety. (California Safe Schools Coalition Research Brief No. 4). San Francisco, CA: California Safe Schools Coalition.
Szalacha, L. (2003). Safe sexual diversity climates: Lessons learned from an evaluation of Massachusetts Safe Schools Program for Gay and Lesbian Students. American Journal of Education, 110, 58-88.