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Student is declared brain dead

Times Staff Writers

An Oxnard junior high student who was shot in the head by a classmate earlier this week was declared brain dead Wednesday, and the 14-year-old male suspect now faces a first-degree murder charge, authorities said.

Lawrence King, 15, was declared brain dead by two neurosurgeons about 2 p.m. at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Oxnard, said Craig Stevens, senior deputy Ventura County medical examiner. King’s body remains on a ventilator for possible organ donation, he said.

He was shot early Tuesday in a classroom at E.O. Green Junior High School.

Authorities initially believed that King was improving. But the boy’s condition worsened early Wednesday, and he was placed on a ventilator a few hours later with his family nearby, said an official, who asked not to be named.

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David Keith, an Oxnard police spokesman, said the family would have no comment and asked the media to respect their privacy.

Police said the suspect, whose identity was not disclosed because of his age, shot King at least twice at the beginning of the school day and then fled the campus. The boy was apprehended by police a few blocks away and is being held in Juvenile Hall. He is scheduled to appear in court today.

Ventura County Dist. Atty. Gregory Totten said prosecutors would decide whether the case should remain in Juvenile Court after reviewing the police investigation. Under state law, prosecutors can ask the court to try the suspect as an adult, he said. “In all probability he will be charged in adult court,” Totten said.

Police have not determined a motive in the slaying but said it appeared to stem from a personal dispute between King and the suspect.

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Keith and Totten declined to elaborate.

But several students at the south Oxnard campus said King and his alleged assailant had a falling out stemming from King’s sexual orientation.

The teenager sometimes wore feminine clothing and makeup, and proclaimed he was gay, students said.

“He would come to school in high-heeled boots, makeup, jewelry and painted nails -- the whole thing,” said Michael Sweeney, 13, an eighth-grader. “That was freaking the guys out.”

Student Juan Sandoval, 14, said he shared a fourth-period algebra class with the suspect, whom he described as a calm, smart student who played on the basketball team.

“I didn’t think he was that kind of kid,” Sandoval said. “I guess you never know. He made a big mistake.”

“Their lives are both destroyed now,” said student Hansley Rivera, 12.

Several students said that a day before the shooting, King and several boys had some kind of altercation during the lunch period.

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If the suspect targeted King because of his sexual orientation, the case could rise to the level of a hate crime, authorities said.

“We’ve heard that and a lot of other things,” Keith said. “But I can’t say what the motive is until we finish our interviews.”

Totten said he could not comment on the specifics of the case until he reviewed the police investigation. But a hate-crime enhancement is something that prosecutors would consider as they move forward, he said.

“It’s something we will look at,” he said. “But the case is going to be reviewed as a murder involving the use of a firearm, and that carries a potential sentence of 50 years to life.”

Jerry Dannenberg, the school district superintendent, said the school’s staff was aware that King had butted heads with other students, including the suspect, and offered both students help.

“They had been doing a lot of counseling and a lot of work with [King] to help him deal with some of his concerns and issues,” Dannenberg said. “But I can’t go into specifics about what was going on.”

Bullying in schools has long been a problem. But recent studies show that a student who comes “out” as gay or lesbian is far more likely to suffer abuse than others, said Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network based in New York.

A student thought to be gay was five times as likely to be threatened or injured by a weapon, a 2002 California Department of Education study said.

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Jennings said other studies have found similar results. His group advocates more teacher training on how to handle bullying and harassment, specifically of gay students.

“This Oxnard shooting is very upsetting but not surprising,” Jennings said. “The real issue is not the kid coming out, but the kid sitting next to him. Schools must teach that we may not like one another, but we must respect one another.”

Teachers and counselors at E.O. Green Junior High, meanwhile, sought to calm fears about escalating violence at the south Oxnard campus.

About a quarter of the school’s 1,000 students stayed home Wednesday due to fear of reprisals, Dannenberg said.

He said the school would have extra staff and police on campus for the next few days.

Counselors will be on hand as long as needed, Dannenberg said. The school district will hold a meeting for parents next week to discuss concerns.

This week’s shooting was a first, not only for the school but for all of Ventura County, which has never before seen a classroom fatality.

Dannenberg said school administrators can take steps to keep guns out of schools but that nothing would ever work perfectly.

“It’s not just the schools,” he said. “We have a societal problem. Last week, it was gunfire at a City Council back east. And this week, unfortunately, it was us.”

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catherine.saillant @latimes.com

greg.griggs@latimes.com


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