The morning of Feb. 12, 2008, was sobering for the students of E. O. Green School, in Oxnard, Calif. At 8:15 a.m., 8th-grade student Brandon McInerney walked into a computer class where he shot his classmate Lawrence "Larry" King twice in the head. A doctor pronounced King, the 15-year-old victim of school bullying and homophobia, brain dead at the scene. He died two days later, the victim of a hate crime.
In 2006, the FBI reported that out of the 7,722 hate-crime incidents reported, 16 percent were based on sexual orientation—a higher percentage than crimes based on ethnicity or national origin.
In 2009, it's inexcusable that a state as diverse as Mississippi remains one of 19 states in the country that does not have hate-crimes protections covering gay and transgender people.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students in Mississippi face the most hostile school environment in the country, according to a 2004 report by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which ranked Mississippi last in a nationwide study of school anti-bullying policies. Sadly, Mississippi's absence of hate-crimes legislation and non-discrimination policies that protect citizens from harassment due to sexual orientation or gender identity make gay and transgender Mississippians more susceptible targets of such crimes.
Failing to protect gay and transgender students under existing laws sends a message that violence or bullying is acceptable. Overwhelmingly, however, Americans agree that hate crimes against gay and transgender people are not OK. Gallup polling shows that nearly 70 percent of Americans favor a strengthened national hate-crime law that includes both of these groups, such as the Matthew Shepard Act. Not only is there overwhelming public support for gay and transgender-inclusive hate crimes laws, but there is also strong support for a strengthened federal hate crimes law among law enforcement officials at all levels of government.
According to research by Anna Davis, a student at the University of Southern Mississippi, only two school districts in the state have a comprehensive non-discrimination policy that prevents harassment or bullying based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity: the Greenville and LeFlore school districts. "While two is better than zero, I'm still sad that more schools don't recognize the importance that all students have a right to feel safe in schools," Davis said.
Harassment and bullying of LGBT students has profound and tragic consequences. A 2005 study conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network found that 64.3 percent of gay and lesbian students and 40.7 percent of transgender students report feeling unsafe at school as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
But despite the overwhelming silence in Mississippi, organizations such as the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition are challenging leadership and raising voices to change the status quo. Its mission is to ensure that all students have a safe learning environment by protecting students' constitutional rights, ending discrimination and fostering acceptance through public education.
Hate crimes and discrimination evolve from a larger cultural epidemic of fear, bullying and learned hatred. In our community, we can all do our part to make sure that no one is harmed mentally or physically because of their race, nationality, sex, religion, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity. Hatred and violence have no place in our hearts, homes, lives, states and countries.
On April 17, students across the country will take part in a Day of Silence, during which they will not speak as they stand in solidarity with students who have been bullied and harassed due to their sexual orientation, whether real or perceived. America's educational institutions, including those in Mississippi, have done little to ensure that LGBT students' experiences are equal to that of their peers. Day of Silence is a chance for young people and adults to show their opposition to an educational reality for LGBT students that is separate, yet unequal.
Be quiet April 17. LGBT youth in Mississippi will appreciate it.
James Carter lives in Ridgeland and works with the Safe Schools Coalition. He is currently working on his bachelor's degree at Millsaps College, and volunteers throughout the community in his free time. For more information, visit http://www.supportstudentsafety.com.
Such a good article! I'm very glad to see this.
- Brent Cox
Crimes like these are senseless and should be abhorrent to everyone.
I can't support special "hate crimes" legislation though. It's obvious they don't work. There aren't many stronger than in California where the shooting you describe happened. They didn't save Lawrence King and they wont save the next victim either. You can't legislate your morality into someone else's heart any more than the Religious Right can.
Failing to protect gay and transgender students under existing laws sends a message that violence or bullying is acceptable.
Existing laws do protect gay and transgender students as much as they protect anyone else. There is no exception in the law that states you can't kill someone unless they are gay or transgender. Violence and bullying happens in school and not only to the gay or transgendered. I can't think of a school that doesn't have a policy against both of those. The administration of the school where Lawrence King attended even sent a formal notice to all the staff that read:
We have a student on campus who has chosen to express his sexuality by wearing make-up. It is his right to do so. Some kids are finding it amusing, others are bothered by it. As long as it does not cause classroom disruptions he is within his rights. We are asking that you talk to your students about being civil and non-judgmental. They don't have to like it but they need to give him his space. We are also asking you to watch for possible problems. If you wish to talk further about it please see me or [assistant principal] Joy Epstein.
That's pretty accepting and tolerant of his rights I believe. The administration was allowing the boy to break the school's dress code partly out of concern they would be sued for infringing upon his rights. But guess what happened? Following the shooting the school got sued anyway.
In August 2008, King's family filed a claim against E.O. Green Junior High School at Ventura County Superior Court, alleging that the school's allowing King to wear makeup and feminine clothing was a factor leading to his death. According to the California Attorney General's Office, however, the school could not legally have stopped King from wearing girls' clothes because state law prevents gender discrimination.
Hate crime laws don't do anything to prevent crimes of hate. It would be a waste of time and money and schools should not be the battleground for these kinds of fights.