Federal investigators on Friday concluded that the Tehachapi, Calif., Unified School District failed to “adequately investigate or respond appropriately to the bullying of a gay, 13-year-old middle school student who hung himself in September due to the harassment.”
The report — a result of a cooperative investigation from the civil rights divisions of both the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice — comes nine months after Seth Walsh hanged himself in his backyard.
“All students have the right to go to school without fearing harassment on the basis of their sex, including because they do not conform to gender stereotypes,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant U.S. Attorney General.
“Seth’s story and others like it sadly demonstrate that a school’s failure to address and prevent harassment can have tragic consequences.”
In October, DOE and DOJ investigators conducted interviews with Seth’s family, friends, school staff and classmates, finding that Seth was harassed by peers for more than two years for being gay, which “interfered with his education” and forced him into homeschooling to escape the torment.
Despite having notice of the harassment, the Tehachapi Unified School District did not adequately investigate or otherwise respond to complaints from Seth’s family or Seth himself, the report found.
In an interview shortly after her son’s death, Seth’s mother, Wendy Walsh, said that Seth told her he was gay when he was in the sixth grade.
Over a period of years, Seth was ridiculed, harassed and physically attacked by students. His grades declined dramatically, she said.
Despite her efforts to counter the ongoing harassment, which included filing an official complaint, Walsh said that school officials told her that teachers and administrators at Jacobsen Middle School — where Seth attended before he chose to be home schooled — were caring, and that all reported incidents were dealt with.
Walsh declined to be interviewed regarding the results of the investigation, and referred questions to Bakersfield attorney Daniel Rodriguez, who is representing her in a wrongful death lawsuit against the Tehachapi Unified School District.
In a statement released to the media, Rodriguez said that Seth’s mother reading in the federal report’s findings what Seth was subjected to “brought her to tears.”
“It was a graphic reminder,” he said. “It was painful for her to read it.”
The agreement, however, is “a first step on the path to healing,” he said. Walsh in recent months has spoken before the U.S. House and Senate on bullying legislation.
“She wants to celebrate and honor Seth’s memory,” he said. “To make sure this doesn’t happen to other children.”
The federal findings include a “resolution agreement,” which requires the school district to take steps to prevent sexual orientation and gender identity based harassment at all its schools.
According to the agreement, which will remain in force for at least five years:
- Before July 15, the district will submit proposed revisions of its harassment policies that require administrators to refer complaints to law enforcement when appropriate. The district must hire a consultant (paid for by the department) to provide mandatory training on harassment to students and employees.
- By Aug. 31, the district will notify its students, parents and employees of revised policies via mail and a posting on its website.
- Within 45 school days, the district will train all employees on revised policies and bullying report procedures. The federal department will also provide training on federal laws.
- Within 30 school days, Tehachapi will form an advisory committee to “foster a positive education climate free of … harassment.”
- Appoint district-level officials to review all bullying reports within five days of receiving a bullying complaint. By Aug. 17, Tehachapi must send a proposed plan to U.S. departments.
- Monitor locker rooms during all changing times, and accommodate those who want to change in a private space. [Wendy Walsh wrote in her complaint that Seth was harshly ridiculed in locker rooms.]
- Develop a monitoring program to assess the effectiveness of its anti-harassment efforts.
If the school district fails to comply with the agreement, the case would be referred to the Justice Department for litigation, and the school district could lose its federal funding.
Tehachapi School Board President Mary Graham, would not comment on the investigation, and said she had not been officially notified that the findings had been made public. She did remark that the school system had been looking at ways “to make things better” before the federal investigation was launched.
“The board does not tolerate bullying of any kind. We don’t care what kind of bullying it is,” Graham said.
“We have followed the law in every respect. Like any other school, bullying will go on. It happens every minute of the day. But I truly believe the school district has obeyed the law. Do we need to go a step further? Probably so.”
The investigation was ordered by the office of the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan after an official DOE letter was sent to school nationwide last fall setting guidelines for bullying prevention and warning of reprimands to those who didn’t follow them.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California recently launched the “Seth Walsh Students’ Rights Project” aimed at combating bullying and discrimination in California‘s schools, particularly against LGBT or questioning students.
James Gilliam, director of the project, said he will use this case for widespread advocacy, to make sure schools are aware of their obligations in addressing gender-based harassment.
The California state Assembly on June 1 approved “Seth’s Law,” an anti-bullying measure aimed at reducing bullying of LGBT teens, and named in honor of Seth Walsh. The bill now heads to the state Senate.