OXNARD, Calif. — Larry King was a gay eighth-grader who used to come to school in makeup, high heels and earrings. And when the other boys made fun of him, he would boldly tease them right back by flirting with them.
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That may have been what got him killed.
On Feb. 12, another student, Brandon McInerney, 14, shot him twice in the head at the back of the computer lab at their junior high school, police say.
The slaying of the 15-year-old boy has alarmed gay rights activists and led to demands that middle schools do more to educate youngsters about discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Police would not discuss McInerney's motive. But the day before the shooting, King told McInerney he liked him, eighth-grader Eduardo Segure told the Ventura County Star.
If King had flirted with the other boy, "that can be very threatening to someone's ego and their sense of identity," said Jaana Juvonen, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
McInerney was jailed on $770,000 bail on an adult murder charge that could put him behind bars for life. Prosecutors also filed a hate-crime enhancement, which could bring three more years if McInerney is found to have acted on the basis of the victim's race, religion, nationality or sexual orientation.
The shooting has galvanized Oxnard, a city of nearly 200,000 people about 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Several vigils for King have been held, including a march that drew about 1,000 people to this strawberry-growing section of Ventura County.
Like the killings of some other gay students — such as Matthew Shepard in Wyoming and Brandon Teena, the Nebraska transsexual whose story was the subject of the movie "Boys Don't Cry" — King's death has drawn national attention and outraged many gays.
Comic Ellen DeGeneres, who is a lesbian, said on her talk show Feb. 28: "Larry was not a second-class citizen. I'm not a second-class citizen. It is OK if you are gay."
'He wasn't afraid'
Students at E.O. Green Junior High said the other kids used to taunt King, call him names and throw wet paper towels at him in the boys' restroom, and he would bravely fire back by flirting with them and chasing them.
"He didn't like people insulting him," said his friend Miriam Lopez, 13. "Larry was brave enough to bring high heels and makeup to school and he wasn't afraid of anything."
Jerry Dannenberg, superintendent of the Hueneme School District, would not discuss details of what went on between King and McInerney but said students are encouraged to come forward if they have been threatened.
He also said that King was free to wear women's accessories with his uniform of white shirt and dark pants because the dress code prohibits only those items that could be a safety threat, such as steel-toed shoes.
"If girls are wearing jewelry, you can't stop boys from wearing it, too," he said. "Each gender has the right to wear what the other does."
The school system said that it has tolerance programs in its middle schools, but that sexual orientation is often not dealt with until high school. Since the killing, school officials have been meeting with gay leaders about changing the program.
"With young people coming out at younger ages, our schools — especially our junior highs and middle schools — need to be proactive about teaching respect for diversity based on sexual orientation and gender identity," said Carolyn Laub, executive director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network. "The tragic death of Larry King is a wake-up call for our schools to better protect students from harassment at school."
Abuse and harassment
A 2005 survey by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network found that more than 64 percent of gay and lesbian students report verbal, sexual or physical harassment at school, and 29 percent said they missed at least a day of school in the previous month out of fear for their safety. The group is holding its annual "Day of Silence" in memory of King on April 25.
The families of both boys have refused to comment. An e-mail message left for McInerney's attorney was not immediately returned.
Both teens have been described as good kids.
King and his mother crocheted hundreds of scarves that were shipped to U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. The avid singer planned to belt out the national anthem at his brother's opening-day baseball game this spring.
"He had an amazing voice and was always singing," said Averi Laskey, 13, a friend since elementary school. "He would stick up for you no matter what. Larry was the best kind of person you could meet."
McInerney was described as the typical eighth-grader, goofy and fun to be around. He trained to be a lifeguard and took martial arts. He also enrolled in the Young Marines, a group similar to the Army's Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps.
The two had at least one thing in common: rough upbringings.
King had been in foster care at a center for abused and neglected children since November, said Steve Elson, the facility's chief executive. Confidentiality laws prevented him from saying why.
McInerney's parents accused each other of domestic violence and filed dueling restraining orders, according to court records. Several months before McInerney was born, his father was accused of shooting his mother in the elbow. Kendra McInerney told a local paper she struggled with drug addiction for many years. The couple divorced in 2002.
Jay Smith, director of the Ventura County Rainbow Alliance, a gay rights organization, questioned whether teachers have enough training to deal with gay teens.
"Those of us being out remember being bullied and we don't want to see that happen to another kid," he said.
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