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By Casey Christie / The Californian
BY LAUREN FOREMAN Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
The mother of a gay 13-year-old Tehachapi student who hung himself in 2010 after being bullied at school has accepted a settlement with the Tehachapi Unified School District for $750,000.
Wendy Walsh, whose son Seth died after two years of bullying at Jacobsen Middle School, had initially sought more than $6 million.
Walsh's attorney, Daniel Rodriguez, called the decision to settle an attempt to provide "closure."
The settlement was reached in March before a scheduled pretrial hearing on April 7.
About two years after Seth's death, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law AB 9, also known as Seth's Law, which requires, among other things, that school districts adopt policies prohibiting discrimination, harassment, intimidation and bullying based on actual or perceived characteristics.
In response to a civil rights complaint Walsh filed in 2010 that attracted national attention, U.S. Department of Education investigators found the district "did not adequately investigate or otherwise respond" to the bullying.
Walsh followed with a suit against Tehachapi Unified on July 5, 2011 for compensation for wrongful-death and punitive damages as well as medical expenses.
"The amount at which the case was settled reflects a concession by Mrs. Walsh," said Michael Kellar, the school district's lead attorney.
Kellar said the district offered the settlement because of its response to the bullying.
Rodriguez wrote in an email Tuesday that the Tehachapi district had planned to use "a technical defense" that a school district could never legally be held responsible for the death of a student by means of suicide.
Kellar, however, refuted that.
"There was a risk that the judge could have very well accepted that technical argument and given the school district a free pass in this case," Rodriguez wrote.
"In order to avoid that risk and to bring closure to the most painful thing a parent could ever endure, the death of a child, Wendy Walsh decided to settle and forego reliving the trauma in the courtroom."
Walsh agreed to the settlement that the K-12 district proposed through its insurance company -- the Self-insured Schools of California (SISC) -- and a federal notice of settlement was filed March 21.
Walsh said Tuesday through her attorney her child's death "was not in vain."
Seth's Law, went into effect July 1, 2012.
The Tehachapi Unified school board approved anti-harassment curriculum for its kindergarten through fifth-grade students by the end of July 2012, and the district later added a sixth- through 12th- grade curriculum.
Lisa Gilbert, the Tehachapi Unified superintendent, said the district now follows a strict protocol regarding bullying that requires staff members to report any incidents of bullying to an administrator within 24 hours. Administrators have a "stringent timeline" to investigate and respond.
Gilbert said depending on the incident, the school may conduct student meetings, witness interviews, mediation with parents and schedule changes to separate students.
Mary Graham, who has served as president of the Tehachapi Unified school board since before the 2010 suicide, said after Seth's death the school board wanted to enact preventative curriculum targeting the entire student body, and it did.
"Bullying is bullying, and it's wrong," she said. "Adults do it. Children do it. But it's still wrong."