The U. S. Department of Education has launched a probe into a California school district’s handling of complaints by the mother of Seth Walsh, a 13-year old gay teen who committed suicide after enduring years of relentless bullying.
“The probe was launched in response to a complaint from Seth Walsh’s mother, that Tehachapi Unified School District employees had failed to adequately address the years of bullying that preceded her son’s death last Sept. 28,” confirmed Justin Hamilton, a spokesperson for the Education Department (DOE).
Investigators from the department’s civil rights division are trying to determine if employees of the Tehachapi Unified School District failed to address bullying that preceded Seth’s death.
Wendy Walsh said she contacted DOE investigators while her son lay in hospital in a coma in the nine days before he died.
“They put this on their very important list, their priority list,” Walsh told the Associated Press. “Obviously, there must be a big problem that needs to be addressed, and it isn’t just around Seth. It’s the whole nation.”
At issue is whether the school district took steps to prevent the anti-gay bullying Seth endured once his mother and grandmother reported it.
Although federal civil rights laws do not cover sexual orientation, the DOE has authority to investigate cases where the school has become a “hostile environment” for students perceived to be gay, lesbian or transgender.
The investigations can be done under laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender stereotypes, Hamilton said.
Earlier this month, the Education Department distributed a national memorandum to state leaders, outlining key components of state bullying laws and policies. The Dec. 16 memo is intended to serve as a reference for state and local officials developing or revising anti-bullying legislation or policies, and contains key components of existing anti-bullying laws from 29 states.
In announcing the memo’s release, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “We need the commitment from everyone at the federal, state and local level to put an end to bullying. I hope that highlighting these best practices will help policymakers as they work to keep our children safe and learning.”
The memo, sent to all Governors, chief state school officers and state education boards, is part of the Obama Administration’s commitment to prevent bullying in schools.