A "U" Grade

While procrastinating in the middle of working on another blog post that I swore I would eventually post, I took advantage of a rare chance one morning this week to actually read the morning paper in the AM hours.  I have been paying only ancillary attention to the murder trial in Chatsworth regarding a middle schooler’s murder of his classmate in Oxnard in 2008.

Yes, a nightmare for these two families that I couldn’t even begin to fathom.  But of greater concern to me, what caused me to react beyond the simply recognition of pity for the circumstances, was this note from the article:

One teacher after another has testified in the murder trial about their deep worries that King’s feminine attire and taunting behavior could provoke problems — and that E.O. Green Junior High administrators ignored them. It wasn’t just that King, 15, had begun wearing makeup and women’s spiked-heeled boots, witnesses testified. It was that he seemed to relish making the boys squirm at his newly feminized appearance and was taunting them with comments like “I know you want me.””They wanted to beat Larry up for what he was doing to them and they came to me because I wanted to keep them out of trouble,” E.O. Green teacher Jill Ekman testified. “I told them that I would work on getting assistance from the office and we would work this out.”

While I have to admit to not following the trial in intimate detail, news about shooting has piqued my attention ever since I came across this LA Times story from two years ago, about Dawn Boldrin, the teacher in the front of the classroom.  The murder of the student, Larry King, was catalyst for ending her teaching career, and depending upon one’s POV, member’s of King’s family have pointed at Boldrin as hypocriticalover her own feelings in the death of the gay teenager, given how she had given King her own daughter’s homecoming dress as a way of honoring his identity, but with the instructions that it wasn’t an appropriate piece of clothing for regular school.

Boldrin said she considered the gift of her daughter’s homecoming dress to be a private moment between herself and King, who was struggling with family and sexual identity issues.
Boldrin said she wasn’t concerned about her gift further inflaming problems at the school related to King’s attire because she told King he couldn’t wear the floor-length gown to school. “I didn’t see anything inappropriate about him enjoying that dress outside of school,” Boldrin said on Friday, her second day of testimony for the defense. Queried by Fox, Boldrin admitted that her former colleagues at the school didn’t agree with her. She lost her tenured teaching position and now works as a barista at Starbucks. Fox also brought out that Boldrin suffered significant mental issues after the shooting, which occurred in her classroom. Fox asked her if she felt guilty about King’s death. “You bet,” she said after a pause. “And I have guilt over Brandon sitting there too.”

Much of what the Times’ story chose to focus upon was the struggle by teachers at the school to try to ameliorate the situation of one youngster clearly struggling with identity issues, but running up against the normal angst of other pubscent males’ exit out of the latency stage. Essentially, King, the eventual victim, was openly flaunting his cross-dressing, and, ultimately, teasing the boy who would become his murderer.  Of course, from what I’ve read, King either engaged in sexual harrassment of other boys at his school, or was not.  But the ultimate catalyst for the murder was King’s comments to McInerney about Valentine’s Day, and the harassment that McInerney was then subjected by his classmates afterwards.

Where I was struck about the details of this tragedy was, as I noted, the teachers and administration struggle with ways to deal with how Larry King’s behavior was escalating towards some confrontation that, in hindsight, was unavoidable, even if unpredictable, in its fatal resolution.

The trial testimony, and defense arguments that school officials mishandled the situation, highlight the struggle that many schools face: how to protect the civil rights of gay and transgender children while addressing the tensions that the issue can cause on campuses.

Assistant Principal Joy Epstein has come under criticism for allegedly being more intent on protecting King’s civil rights than in acknowledging that his dress and behavior were causing problems.

“It was reported, more than once, by more than one person,” said English teacher Dawn Boldrin. “It was documented. There is paperwork on this. She kept saying that she didn’t know and she did. She knew. She did. Everybody knew.”

Epstein, who testified for the prosecution, denied that anyone on the campus relayed concerns about King’s safety before the shooting.

One of the more troubling developments I see both in the classroom and on the playground is how “gay” has become an epithet.  But the practice itself is just mirroring, to some extent, popular culture.    Nevertheless, I try to approach the subject from what would best be described as a “teaching tolerance” perspective, as opposed to turning any question into a sexual harrassment “zero-tolerance” referral.  Part of me doesn’t want the complications of sending the kid to the office when they’re really ignorant of the implications of the phrase.  So I would rather try to diffuse it even so lamely by even pointing out that there are a number of other insults the kid likely has at his/her disposal.  But hey, Kobe Bryant does it!

Another approach I’ve used, especially when I was teaching 5th graders, was to point out the idea that the privacy of one’s home carried with it a fundamental right to such privacy.  This is an extension to the notion that one’s freedom ends where another person’s “person” begins.  (I have found this tome to be the best way I know to introduce the idea of the Bill of Rights to youngsters.) For simplicity’s sake, I try to describe it as akin to a situation where someone is watching their television by themselves, in their apartment, away from an outside window, wearing only boxer shorts while drinking a beer.  It’s not bothering anyone else, given the expectation to privacy in such a situation.  And seriously, I don’t figure that my example is the most eloquent, and likely has legal flaws, but in trying to get the idea across to 10-year-olds, I feel it has its uses, (even if the notion of watching TV, or doing so while wearing only underwear, or even drinking a beer, is anathema to certain of my colleagues.)  To this extent, the idea that someone is “gay” has no direct effect upon me, regardless of my attitude towards homosexual acts themselves, because, honestly, it’s not part of my identity.  But by taking such a stance, it is not within my right to take actions to deny others their own preferences.  Going further, gay marriage has no impact upon whether or not my own marriage stays strong.  In the end, I’d like to think that it’d be my own stupidity that would directly impact my marriage’s success or failure.

But all of my own views dissolve if I place myself into the heart of the tragedy at this middle school.  Instead of pushing the notion of a right to privacy, what appears to be unmistakable is the behavior of the victim prior to his murder.  He was making no effort to hide his orientation.   While the murder of Matthew Shepard has been likened to this killing, King was placing a greater burden on those teachers who wanted to see him stay out of trouble with his classmates:

In the King case, teachers testified about their concerns over King’s willingness to bring attention to himself, even if it was negative. Ekman, a 21-year teaching veteran, had King in seventh grade for reading and English and knew that the school’s special education plan for King urged him not to call special attention to himself.

That was why when she saw him wearing mascara and eyeliner to school in the eighth grade, she told him to wash it off, Ekman testified for the defense. King complied but returned the next day with even more makeup and a message: Epstein, the assistant principal, had told him that it was his right to wear the makeup, she told the court.

Epstein, in her testimony, said she had consulted with Hueneme Elementary School District officials about how to react to King’s dress and makeup. She was told that he had the right to wear girl’s items as long as they were within the district’s dress code, Epstein testified.

Shepard was ambushed and, as it was later discovered, did not make sexual advances that resulted in an attempt to use the gay panic defense.  Ironically, such a defense is being used in the current Chatsworth murder trial, and, given the age of the murderer, I can actually see this young man entering into a confusion of panic by a classmates and actions towards him.  I’ve often seen kids at my school, who are often teased, call down wrath upon themselves by baiting the very kids who are mostly likely to engage in behavior they’d don’t want to see.  But my understanding of Brandon McInerney’s actions does not mean I condone it.  Instead, reading the accounts of the school’s staff to come to some resolution of a volatile situation, puts me in a place where I realize how inadequate my own likely responses might have been had this been occurring in my own classroom or amongst the school as a whole.

I am not alone:

Dealing with a student who is exploring gender identity can be difficult, especially in the middle school years when students have differing levels of maturity and may be confused about their own identities, experts say. But it is a growing social issue on school campuses, said Stephanie Brill, founder and chief executive of Gender Spectrum, a Bay Area group that offers school workshops and teacher training on gender issues.

“Discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender is illegal, but teachers sometimes believe that they are not trained on how to deal with those issues when they crop up,” said Joel Baum, education director at Gender Spectrum.

“We hear a lot from teachers who feel handcuffed because they don’t know how to respect those rights and create a safe space for children who aren’t comfortable with it,” Baum said.

While teacher Dawn Boldrin made serious attempts at bonding with King as a means towards moderating his behavior and attitude, other teachers tried to get administration to step in:

Another assistant principal, Sue Parsons, sent an e-mail to the staff telling them to leave King alone unless his behavior was disrupting a class. Ekman said Epstein advised her to teach tolerance if students were upset by King’s behavior.

But that wasn’t working, Ekman said. A group of male students in her classroom told her they wanted to beat King up because he would seek them out and follow them into the bathroom. Ekman considered that sexual harassment and went back to Epstein with her concerns, she testified.

Epstein told her there was nothing the school could do, Ekman said. When the teacher attempted to press her case, Epstein shut the door in her face, Ekman told the court. The next day Ekman filed a grievance with the school’s principal, Joel Lovstedt, alleging that her concerns were being ignored.

On the following Monday, the grievance was denied by the school’s administration, Ekman said.

The fact that Epstein is openly lesbian, and some have somehow linked her orientation to inflaming the circumstances surrounding King, is something I consider besides the point of how the administration seriously attempted to “punt” the ball rather than trying to factor in the warnings of teachers who had inklings of the problems escalating beyond their control.  In many respects, as horrible as it sounds, I might even agree with the characterization that King, the murder victim, was a bully.  Having been teased myself as a youngster (for weight issues and glasses) when I was in junior high school, I once turned upon a tormentor by slamming him into a file cabinet, and, once in elementary school, I defended myself from taunts and physical threats by taking advantages of the myriad uses of metal lunchboxes.  My logic at the time involved the idea that a disproportionate response would end the threat immediately by, yes, singling myself out as slightly crazed, but by also letting others know not to mess with me.  Truth be told however, I did not think of killing bullies.

Tragically, McInerney’s response was entirely beyond the pale, but in removing sexual orientation from the equation, the school’s staff became unfortunately split and unable to act because it had no adequate controls in place with which to deal with the role reversal of victim/bully, wherein the bully was within their rights to free expression but crossed the line when such expression was clearly making another classmate uncomfortable, and determined to use a disproportionate method to end the taunting.  Given the normal “macho” attitudes of the tween male, McInerney likely saw only one way to end the taunting.  And, from what I’ve read, all of the attention by the administration was focused upon King, and no outreach effort was made to advocate for McInerney, who, even considering what ultimately transpired, had his own right to attend school without the disruption being put upon him by King.  King had every right at self-expression, but McInerney also, in my opinion, had a right to his own privacy.

Sadly, recriminations are wholly after the fact. Ultimately, the article struck a nerve within me to monitor my own actions/reactions and comments in the future.  That I can see myself in that courtroom reflecting upon my own potential failings as an educator truly gives me pause.

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One thought on “A "U" Grade

  1. Pingback: When All Are Guilty | ACTS OF TERRIER

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