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SAN FRANCISCO – The California affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Project sent a letter today to the superintendent of the Tehachapi Unified School District urging him to take steps to prevent another tragedy such as the one that befell 13-year-old Tehachapi student Seth Walsh, who recently took his own life after enduring years of anti-gay harassment at school. The letter was sent on behalf of Seth's mother, Wendy.
"Seth told me he was gay when he was in the sixth grade. He was a wonderful, loving child, and I loved him for who he was," said Wendy Walsh. "I can't bring my son back. But schools can make a difference today to keep this from happening to any more young people. Schools need to take harassment and bullying seriously when parents or students tell them about it, and when they see it in the halls."
An ACLU investigation found that officials in the school district knew about, and largely ignored, the harassment Seth faced. Even after Seth's death, the district has not taken adequate steps to remedy the hostile environment for students who are or are perceived to be LGBT. California law requires schools to protect students from harassment based on sexual orientation. The U.S. Department of Education has also launched an investigation of the school district.
"Students have the right to be safe and supported at school for being exactly who they are. And parents deserve to know that their kids are going to school in a respectful environment where they are nurtured to reach their full potential," said Elizabeth Gill, staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project and the ACLU of Northern California. "Public schools have a duty to protect students from harassment based on sexual orientation, but too many schools get a failing grade in this respect."
In the letter sent today, the ACLU outlines several steps the district should take to create a safe environment for LGBT students, including creating strong anti-harassment policies and programs, taking complaints of harassment seriously, providing professional guidance for school staff about how to identify and stop anti-LGBT harassment, explaining the harmful impact of anti-gay harassment to students and staff and supporting a gay-straight student alliance on campus.
On September 19, Seth hanged himself from a tree in the family's yard after facing years of relentless harassment that school officials essentially ignored. Seth was on life support for nine days before he passed away on September 28. Seth is one of at least 11 LGBT young people who have taken their own lives in the past three months following severe harassment.
Seth was bullied based on perceived sexual orientation since the fifth grade, when students started calling him "gay." As he got older, the harassment became more frequent and severe. By seventh grade, taunts and verbal abuse were a constant occurrence. Students regularly called him "fag" and "queer." He was afraid to use the restroom or be in the boy's locker room before gym class.
Seth's mother and close friends report that teachers and school administrators were aware that Seth was being harassed and, in some instances, participated in the harassment. Another student reported that one teacher called Seth "fruity" in front of an entire class. His mother's pleas to the school for help were often brushed aside. Seth had always been a good student, receiving A's and B's, but his grades quickly dropped to failing as the harassment continued. Friends reported that he became depressed and withdrawn. A note Seth left upon his death expresses love for his family and close friends, and anger at the school for bringing them "this sorrow."
"We can all agree that anti-LGBT harassment is a problem, but the unfortunate reality is that schools don't always have the tools or knowledge to adequately protect LGBT students," said James Gilliam, Deputy Executive Director at the ACLU of Southern California. "Better harassment policies save lives and make a safer environment for all students."
More on Seth's story, including a video message from Wendy Walsh, can be seen at: www.aclu.org/sethwalsh