A federal investigation has found evidence that Tehachapi school district officials failed 13-year-old Seth Walsh who, because of pervasive anti-gay bullying, attempted suicide and died as a result of his injuries last year.
The investigation by the Office for Civil Right (OCR) at the Department of Education alongside the Department of Justice came about following a complaint made by Seth Walsh’s mom Wendy Walsh who alleged that Seth was subjected to chronic harassment by fellow classmates at his California middle school and that, even though the school was well aware of that harassment, the district failed to act in an appropriate manner.
What the investigation found makes for rather shocking reading.
After interviewing over 75 of Seth’s classmates, as well as teachers and administrators, the report found evidence that for a period stretching beyond two years Seth was routinely verbally harassed for his gender nonconforming appearance, was touched inappropriately by other students, had food and water containers thrown at him, was made the subject of rumors and verbal assaults regarding his sexuality, and that the bullying became so bad that he ceased changing in the locker rooms as he feared for his own safety; and, while these were the more frequent incidents, this is not an exhaustive list of what the 13-year-old Seth had to endure.
The report found that school administrators were aware of these problems but often times did nothing to stop such behavior and when on the rare occasions they did take action their response was, to say the least, lacking.
Although the school disciplined at least one student who used an anti-gay slur against Seth, the federal investigators found several instances in which complaints brought to Jacobsen’s principal or vice-principal by the boy or his mother went unanswered or were handled ineffectively, even though many adults knew that Seth was picked on.
The vice-principal, for example, told Walsh “that, in a perfect word, the student would be treated equally, but that the students were at a difficult age and he could not change attitudes originating in the students’ homes.”
On another occasion, the principal gave Seth a yearbook to identify the boys who had been taunting him, but let the matter drop because the boy could not name any of his alleged harassers.
“When administrators should have been actively communicating to students the importance of treating the student with respect and of intervening on his behalf when others did not do so, they instead engaged in passive, incomplete action or inaction, creating for some students the perception that the harassment was acceptable,” the justice and education officials said.
Another troubling incident occurred when Seth requested that he be allowed to begin independent study because of being “miserable” due to being bullied. The school administration granted his request, but rather than tackle the issues that had forced Walsh to seek isolation from his peers, the administration simply noted that he required independent study because of “sexual orientation ridicule” and apparently left it at that.
The investigation goes on to note that appeals made on Seth’s behalf by his family and friends were also frequently ignored and, if acknowledged, were rarely documented by school officials.
School Disputes Report’s Findings But Will Take Action
To settle this case the school district, while disputing the assertion that its response was lacking, has voluntarily agreed to a period of monitoring over the next seven years whereby its approach to anti-harassment will be examined.
Furthermore, the district has agreed to train staff in how to better handle instances of bias-motivated bullying. The investigation also made a number of recommendations that the school is said to be keen to take on, such as regular school climate surveys and specific anti-bullying lessons.
While this is all well and good, it does not bring back the 13-year-old boy who, so devastated by this bullying and so obviously failed by his school, chose to hang himself from a tree in his own backyard.
Nor does the investigation truly get to the heart of the matter: Seth was bullied for being gender nonconforming and being perceived to be gay. However, Seth Walsh’s mother was forced to lodge a complaint on the grounds of sex-based harassment under Title IX because federal policy does not cover sexual orientation or gender identity because current law does not cover anti-LGBT bullying.
That federal LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying laws are needed is made so terribly clear here where school officials seemed indifferent, at best, to acts of anti-gay bullying perpetrated toward Seth.
The Student Nondiscrimination Act would add perceived or actual sexual orientation and gender identity to federal anti-bullying policy. The legislation currently sits in Congress and, as this case shows, it is vital that it becomes law.
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Photo used under the Creative Commons Attribution License, with thanks to Cesar Augusto Serna Sz