No Joy: “Bullying, Sexual Identity and the Limits of Tolerance”

The murder of 15-year-old student Lawrence King was the subject of the cover article in the July 28 Newsweek. Investigative reporter Ramin Setoodeh had spent five months in Oxnard, California, researching and interviewing. Like the robot spacecraft Galileo relaying images of Jupiter, the reporter brought back information that was more acutely detailed, yet posed even more complex questions about what the magazine identifies as “bullying, sexual identity and the limits of tolerance.”

King was killed in a classroom at the E.O. Green Middle School, surrounded by classmates and his teacher. The killer was a 14-year-old student who, with forethought, brought a gun to school, deliberately shot King in the head, threw down the gun, and walked out, to be apprehended a few minutes later.

Both youngsters had troubled histories. King’s, only in part, involved his sexual identity. The school, to its credit, was attempting—however ineffectively—to defend his rights to self-expression.

But of what earthly assistance is it to a gay or trans middle school boy to allow him to attend school wearing glitter makeup and stiletto heels? Does a school—any middle school—allow this attire in the dress code for female students? (If so, why?)

Kids are in school to learn. Gay, trans, bi, straight—all will need skills in their adult lives, and their jobs most likely will enforce dress codes, and have rules detailing “appropriate” behavior.

A school can monitor dress, and still sponsor after-school activities at which a student dresses as he or she chooses, or provide administration members with whom students may confide and seek counseling.

Bullying is not acceptable, from any quarter. King, the Newsweek reporter found, did not scruple to use his own sexual issues as an offensive weapon, telling other boys, including the accused killer, “You look hot,” giving one teacher as his rationale, “It’s fun to watch them squirm.”

These remarks in no way are meant as a justification of what happened to King, but rather to point out that solutions to any of the seemingly obvious problems—aren’t.

What is an emotionally unformed 14-year-old’s “right of self-expression” in a public school environment, and how should the school administration balance it against the right of other students to experience a peaceful, unhassled school day? Are gang colors, provocative clothing, and verbal or physical aggression also allowable under the rubric of “self-expression”?

Administrators, parents, and students themselves are woefully unprepared to deal with children’s earlier and earlier expressions of sexuality and gender. Better guidelines will have to be thought out and implemented to prevent more tragedies like the one that ended the life of one boy, recast the life of another, and touched scores of their peers.

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