Mother of Bullied Gay Teen Sues Calif. School District

by Megan Barnes
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Jul 8, 2011

The mother of a gay teenager who committed suicide filed a lawsuit against his school district on Tuesday, July 5, after a federal investigation found that it failed to respond adequately to severe bullying leading up to his death.

Wendy Walsh is suing the Tehachapi Unified School District for the wrongful death of her 13-year-old son Seth, who died last September after hanging himself from a backyard tree.

Seth Walsh was the youngest in a rash of gay teens who committed suicide that month. He endured years of relentless bullying from his classmates at Jacobsen Middle School, where administrators did little to respond to his mother's complaints, according to the seven-month investigation by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice.

The school district contests the findings that it "did not adequately investigate or otherwise respond" to the harassment, but agreed to implement a stricter bullying protocol. The Justice Department found that the school district violated federal civil rights law with deliberate indifference.

"The only way to get the district to follow its own rules is to file a lawsuit because that's the only way we're going to make them accountable for their choices to look the other way," said Wendy Walsh's attorney, Daniel Rodriguez.

The lawsuit names the school district, Superintendent Richard Swanson, Principal Susan Ortega, Vice Principal Paul Kaminsky and four teachers as negligent in Seth's death. It also alleges that some of the school's teachers engaged in his bullying.

Rodriguez questioned how seriously the school district will take its new anti-bullying guidelines; it adopted similar rules following a sexual harassment lawsuit he settled in 2009. "Was it just lip service?" he asked.

Federal investigators interviewed 75 of Seth Walsh's classmates who said he was routinely called anti-gay names, tripped, shoved and groped in hallways, mocked for having effeminate mannerisms and taunted with homophobic remarks. To avoid the escalating harassment, he spent lunchtime roaming empty halls with a friend and took up independent study.

The report revealed that only two students who harassed Seth Walsh were ever disciplined - with lunch detention and suspension, respectively - and that most of his mother's complaints went un-pursued. School officials had fuzzy, conflicting and poorly documented accounts of his harassment. Ortega couldn't remember some complaints at all.

Wendy Walsh alleges that Kaminsky blew her off the first time she met with him and told her he could not change attitudes that students learned at home. He wrote a column in the parent newsletter addressing bullying with no mention of sexual orientation. His stereotypical description of "different" and "odd" students read like it came from Seth Walsh's bullies.

Seth Walsh's teachers told investigators that they were completely unaware of the harassment he suffered and were never advised to be vigilant, despite the fact that it occurred in plain sight. In fact, several students alleged that some of Seth Walsh's teachers actually partook in his taunting - making gay jokes about him in class and placing bets on when he would come out.

Because Seth Walsh could not identify specific students who tormented him, administrators would not follow up on repeated complaints. They reportedly told him that if he didn't speak up about the harassment, they would assume it was no longer happening.

This inaction, Rodriguez said, not only violated the district's own anti-harassment policies, but its legal obligation to report hate crimes.

"Even though some teachers and administrators knew what was going on and there were already rules in place to make sure it didn't happen, for whatever reason, they ignored it," said Rodriguez. "They looked the other way and nobody got reprimanded."

Swanson would not comment on the lawsuit, which he has yet to see. He said the district is working with the Justice Department's Office of Civil Rights.

"Officially, the district sees things differently, but we're taking the issues that OCR has addressed as a given and we're going to try to investigate each and every one of them," Swanson told EDGE, noting the investigation includes allegations that teachers enabled and participated in Seth Walsh bullying.

The district is working with Arizona State University's Equity Alliance to develop better training and investigation techniques.

"Seth experienced things that were unfortunate and we've got to do things in the future that help prevent any other kid from having to go through the same thing," Swanson told EDGE. "Whether or not we could have prevented anything in this matter, I really can't speak to, but we certainly can address the issues brought up by the OCR in as direct and straight forward a manner as possible."

In the weeks following Seth Walsh's death, Tehachapi High School started a chapter of the Gay Straight Alliance Network, a national organization that creates safe spaces for LGBT youth in schools.

The GSA Network is pleased that the investigation prompted change in the small, mountain community, but horrified that it took such a tragedy.

"It sends a message that states need to step in and make sure there's clear guidance on what it means to create an anti-discriminatory environment and make sure that the schools follow through on that," said GSA Network spokesperson Jill Marcellus.

Study: More than 60 Percent of Transgender Students Experience Bullying
Last year, the California Safe Schools Coalition reported that 42 percent of lesbian, gay or bisexual students and 62 percent of transgender students reported being harassed because of their gender identity and expression.

An anti-bullying bill in Seth Walsh's name that passed in the California State Assembly will go before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday, July 11. Seth's Law would improve anti-bullying policies in schools by implementing better training, guidelines and shorter investigation timelines.

"Just in the past few months, we've seen Connecticut, Colorado and Arkansas all pass really good anti-bullying laws at the state level," said Shawn Gaylord, director of public policy for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

He believes Seth's Law will fill gaps in existing California anti-bullying laws and improve their enforcement. "Settlements like [Tehachapi's] do have an effect and might serve as a wake-up call."

He and Marcellus both said they commonly hear about teachers joining in on teasing gay students.

Wendy Walsh's lawsuit comes on the heels of another LGBT victory in the California Legislature: the passage of a bill mandating the teaching of gay history in schools. "Studies have shown that when LGBT people are incorporated into classroom discussions, it reduces the number of negative stereotypes bred about LGBT people and reduces the amount of bullying," said Marcellus.

Marcellus commended Wendy Walsh for her activism bringing awareness to bullying and advocating for Seth's Law. Wendy Walsh also appeared in a public service announcement reading her son's suicide note - a note wishing the school "feel like shit for bringing [her] this sorrow."

Some of Seth Walsh's bullies have come forward and apologized to his mother. Rodriguez said Wendy Walsh had a difficult time reading the DOJ report, but knows it will help create the safe environment her son didn't get.

"This is the first step in what she calls a journey to celebrate and honor Seth's life by making sure that what happened to him - the bullying and tormenting - won't happen to other kids," said Rodriguez.

Megan Barnes is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. She regularly contributes to EDGE, San Pedro Today and was a founding editor of alternative UCSB newspaper The Bottom Line. More of her work can be found at www.megbarnes.com


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