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Lessons from a teen student’s killing

Neither family was satisfied when the jury deadlocked last week in the trial of an Oxnard teenager charged with murdering a gay middle-school classmate before stunned students in an English class.

The parents of the dead boy, Larry King, stormed out of court when the mistrial was announced. The mother of defendant Brandon McInerney buried her face in her hands, slumped and sobbed.

The jury was stuck between murder and manslaughter; torn, like much of a troubled public, between competing scenarios:

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Was Brandon an angry white supremacist who plotted the killing because he despised Larry for being gay? Or was the shooting a “crime of passion” by a troubled, frustrated teenage boy embarrassed beyond reason by another boy’s unwanted romantic attentions?

When the shooting occurred in 2008, it was considered by some the most notorious gay hate crime since the 1998 Wyoming torture and murder of college student Matthew Shepard. This was, it seemed, a troubling sign of homophobia playing out violently among children barely into their teens.

But if there is anything the nine-week trial made clear, it’s that this case is not just about gay rights and gender identity but also about the tensions afflicting adults — and the mixed messages that bumbling grown-ups can transmit to impressionable kids.

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The trial was moved to the Los Angeles County Superior Court’s Chatsworth courthouse because of the emotion surrounding the case in Ventura County. Much of the testimony by teenage witnesses, laid out in our stories by reporter Catherine Saillant, focused on E.O. Green Middle School, where tiny kids dwarfed by giant backpacks mix with rangy teenagers sporting wispy mustaches.

But their stories might bring back memories of anyone who can remember their early teens: the labels and longings, hurt feelings and hormones, comedy and cruelty that coexist in the combustible brew of middle school.

Larry was a slight, effeminate boy. He was old for eighth grade at 15 and lived in a group home for abused or troubled teens. He had recently begun to clumsily assert his sexuality, wearing makeup and high heels and flirting with boys publicly.

Boys would call Larry “gay, fag, right to his face,” one girl testified. His crowd of female friends would “egg him on,” she said. He seemed to have a crush on Brandon, blowing him kisses, calling out “I love you” and trying to sit with him at lunch.

Brandon was a strapping athlete from a violent home, who friends said didn’t court trouble but didn’t back down. His classmates said he was mad and embarrassed by Larry’s attention. But they also teased him mercilessly about it.

I spent a few mornings at the trial, watching students puzzle through the questions lawyers asked: Like “Did he seem to be a normal kid?”

How, looking back, can you answer that? Their testimony required them to reconcile their perspective as high school seniors with what they’d experienced as eighth-graders.

Back then, Larry’s classmates didn’t know quite what to make of him. He wore the school uniform, dark pants and white shirt, “the same as any other kid,” one girl said. Except, of course, for the “heels, makeup and earrings.”

They painted a picture of Larry as a boy who seemed to court attention, then challenge kids for gawking as he tottered through the hall wearing high heels. “That’s kinda something to stare at, right?” one boy testified, uncertainly.

And a girl who had described Brandon after the shooting to police investigators as “rude … picking on me,” remembered him from the witness stand differently. “He would joke around but not say anything hurtful,” she testified. “Now that I’m older, I realize, that’s just what teenagers do.”

Brandon’s defense lawyer homed in on that: “You have a different perspective now that you’re older, right? You’ve matured.”

I imagine that Brandon — who had just turned 14 when he fired that gun — might have a different perspective now too, one that would let him laugh off a few blown kisses and “I love yous.”

And that Larry, had he lived, might have grown beyond glittery nail polish and pink high-heeled boots.

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Larry wielded a power he probably didn’t understand with his eye makeup, pompadour and high heels. Some kids ran from him; they were uncomfortable, witnesses said. It seems a lot of boys were afraid of Larry King.

But he was a teenager growing into himself, trying desperately to be heard. And the adults who were supposed to guide his passage were tripped up by their own confusion.

One teacher surprised him with a shimmery, strapless dress of her daughter’s. But another made him scrub his eye makeup off. An assistant principal ordered teachers to honor his choices, yet teachers balked at calling him, as he requested, Latisha.

In the months leading up to Larry’s death, his case seemed to have become a battleground for adults. There were whispers that an assistant principal encouraged Larry to further her “gay rights agenda,” and a formal grievance was filed by a teacher who accused administrators of brushing off complaints by other boys that Larry was sexually harassing them.

An email went out to the staff declaring that Larry had the right to “express his sexuality by wearing makeup” on campus. Teachers were advised to “teach tolerance” to their students.

An assistant principal testified that she warned Larry that his clothing choice might make things “difficult” but told him “More power to you if you can get through it.”

But power wasn’t what Larry needed. And tolerance can’t be taught like a chemistry formula.

I give the teachers credit for trying to sort things out:

The teacher who heard the concerns of boys who said they wanted to beat Larry up tried to present their fears to her bosses but said she had a door slammed in her face when she went to an administrator’s office.

And the English teacher may have gone one shimmery dress too far, but she was trying to reach out to a boy whose flamboyance was masking the pain of being taunted. She lost her teaching job after that and now works as a barista at a coffee shop.

It seems to me those teachers were tuned in, at least, to the angst of troubled students and trying to figure out how to comfort those children. While the administrators were consulting guidebooks and issuing edicts, the real life crisis kept brewing, in the hallways and schoolyard and bathrooms.

The trial may not have resolved the key legal issue (was it murder or manslaughter when Brandon pulled the trigger?).

But it opened a window onto the muddle of middle school, where children may have benefited from clearer boundaries and a bit less freedom.

sandy.banks@latimes.com


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