Back to News & Commentary

California Tragedy Highlights the Problem of Anti-Gay Harassment in Our Nation's Schools

Chris Hampton,
Share This Page
February 20, 2008

In spite of having some of the nation’s toughest anti-harassment laws and policies, students in California, like those in many other states, still suffer from rampant anti-gay bullying and harassment. A painful reminder of this came from the town of Oxnard last week, when 15-year-old Larry King was shot and killed in school by a classmate who other students say had harassed Larry for being gay for several weeks. Parents and community members are demanding answers about what the school had been doing to address the harassment, and some students are now saying that rumors that Larry’s harasser planned to kill him had swirled around the school the day before the shooting. While the police investigation of the murder continues, Larry’s accused killer has been charged under California’s hate crimes law.

The story of how a boy who had bravely been open and honest about his sexual orientation lost his life due to another student’s bigotry has clearly touched a nerve. This past Saturday, students who threw together a quickly-organized memorial march were stunned and moved when over 1,000 people gathered to share their grief and show their support for Larry and other students like him who are tormented mercilessly simply because they’re different. In the wake of the shooting, a California legislator also announced plans to introduce a bill to expand diversity education in the hopes of preventing hate crimes. Our colleagues at the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network have set up a website, Remembering Lawrence, to keep track of the many memorial vigils and rallies being planned around the country.

Here at the ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project, we often hear from LGBT students who are harassed and bullied in their schools, yet administrators look the other way. In addition to providing legal advice and guidance to these students, the Project has handled several school harassment cases over the years. Two of our California cases have had a big impact on the way schools in that state and nationwide address the pervasive problem of anti-gay harassment: Loomis v. Visalia Unified School District and Flores v. Morgan Hill Unified School Distric . But holding schools accountable in court for ignoring the problem of harassment is only one of many things that can and must be done to make our schools safer.

We hope that you’ll consider attending or organizing an event to commemorate this heartbreaking loss. But you should also ask yourself what you can do to save other students like Larry King in your own community. First and foremost, LGBT students, their friends, and their families should educate themselves about what their rights are in our public schools. One good place to start is the LGBT Project’s Youth & Schools web section. The “What’s Your Problem?” page can help you identify and learn more about the various types of discrimination faced by LGBT students in our schools. “Change Your School” outlines specific action steps you can take to make your school a safer place for students like Larry. Our “Library” page offers tons of additional resources, both from the ACLU and other organizations, such as model anti-harassment policies, important court decisions, and letters you can use to convince your school to better protect LGBT students. And finally, you can always contact us to find out more and find out whether we might be able to help you.

It’s important to stand up for the dignity of LGBT students at all times and to nip anti-gay harassment in the bud. You might think that what happened in Oxnard might never happen at your school. We’re sure that school administrators, students, and parents at Larry’s school thought the same thing.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page