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A school’s balancing act

The Oxnard junior high where the shooting took place has returned to its usual rhythms, with teachers struggling to keep antsy seventh- and eighth-graders focused on midterms before the holiday break.

The portable computer lab tucked at the back of the schoolyard -- the place where Larry King was gunned down in front of 25 of his classmates -- has reopened. It’s been four years since it happened, and the students here have no direct connection to the day E.O. Green Junior High became part of a national story.

But one of the first questions parents ask is whether their children are safe on campus, said Julianne Pena, the school’s principal, who was brought in a year after the shooting.

King’s parents and critics of the school’s actions in the days prior to the shooting still question whether the school district’s leaders could have done more to intervene in the deteriorating relationship between the two boys.

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During this year’s trial of Brandon McInerney, who shot and killed the openly gay King, teachers testified that they felt powerless to defuse the growing tensions between the student from a dysfunctional family who felt he was being sexually harassed and the student who had begun to wear women’s high-heeled boots and makeup and to flirt with boys. They felt they couldn’t act, teachers testified, because administrators had sent out a memo saying that King was to be left alone.

After the trial, Larry’s mother, Dawn King, said she had gone to administrators to ask them to stop what she believed was her son’s inclination to act out for attention -- even if it was negative attention. But she was turned back, the mother said.

“I knew, gut instinct, that something serious was going to happen,” she said. “They should have contained him, contained his behavior.”

McInerney, now 17, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in a deal that is expected to send him to prison for 21 years. He is to be sentenced Monday.

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Although the school’s decision not to intervene became a theme of the trial and jurors cited it as one of the reasons they were unable to convict McInerney of first-degree murder, administrators said they would respond the same way if it were to happen again.

Leaders of the Hueneme Elementary School District, which operates E.O. Green and 10 other schools, say they have no plans to make policy changes as a result of the shooting.

Supt. Jerry Dannenberg said there is no need because E.O. Green administrators acted appropriately before and after the shooting on Feb. 12, 2008.

An investigation carried out by the district’s insurance carrier determined that no laws were broken nor policies ignored, Dannenberg said. He also defended a memorandum distributed to the school’s staff a few weeks before the shooting advising them that King was within his rights. Students “don’t have to like it, but they need to give him his space.”

Dannenberg said the school board determined that, legally, no changes were necessary. In a lawsuit brought by the Kings, the district admitted no wrongdoing but did settle with the family for more than $250,000.

“We’re caught between a rock and a hard place,” Dannenberg said. “We’re instruments of the state, and we must implement laws equally and fairly -- even if some people don’t like those laws.”

State legislators give school districts wide latitude in deciding how to carry out educational policy, said Tina Jung, spokeswoman for the California Department of Education.

The state steps in when a law is being openly flouted, as was the case with the Westminster Elementary School District in 2004 when a conservative board majority refused to incorporate language protecting gay, lesbian and transgender students. When the state threatened to withhold nearly $8 million in funding, the district board backed down.

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The King-McInerney situation is unusual because it involves policies -- on school safety, bullying, sexual harassment and students’ rights to explore their identities -- with potentially competing goals, Jung said.

The state can offer advice, Jung said, but generally leaves it up to local school boards to decide how to react to problems on campus.

But King’s parents alleged in the suit that the school failed to exercise any local control. Instead of intervening, the school encouraged Larry’s “fatal behavior” by not advising him to tone it down or by not suspending McInerney or even their own son, the Kings alleged.

A psychologist for the Los Angeles Unified School District said that although students generally have a right to dress as they choose, behavior is a separate matter.

Any student who sexually harasses another should be warned, said Judy Chiasson of LAUSD’s Human Relations, Diversity and Equity Office.

In talks with students on the receiving end of harassing behavior, she said, she finds that girls are more socially equipped than boys to brush off unwanted attention. Boys often have to be taught how to respond respectfully and politely, especially if the student flirting with him is another boy, Chiasson said.

“Boys usually say they would hit him,” she said. “I say to them, ‘Could you say, “Thanks but no thanks” ’?”

It also helps to have lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender support groups on campus or a Gay-Straight Alliance club run by students and staffers.

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There have been some changes at E.O. Green since the shooting.

Last month, at the request of teachers, the school held a professionally mediated session to air lingering resentments and finger-pointing over how the school handled the mounting discord between the two students. Another session is in the works, Pena said. She hopes to eventually clear the air so that the school can move beyond that terrible day.

“We don’t want to be overshadowed by this forever,” the principal said.

Parents of students attending E.O. Green say they still worry about gun violence in a city where gang shootings are not uncommon. The Hueneme school board rejected metal detectors not long after the shooting, calling them a false sense of security.

“It’s like at the airport,” Dannenberg said. “You can’t catch them all.” A student could stash a gun under a fence and retrieve it later, he said.

Cinthya Perez, guardian for her 13-year-old niece, an eighth-grader at E.O. Green, said she understands that argument but wishes the school would at least randomly use metal-detecting wands to weed out weapons.

“Kids aren’t kids anymore,” Perez said.

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catherine.saillant@latimes.com


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