Local News

Thursday, Dec 16 2010 04:32 PM

Mom of Tehachapi boy who committed suicide speaks out against bullying

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Wendy Walsh looks at a photo of her son, Seth, while one of their family cats, Wilber, looks out the window in their home in Tehachapi.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Wendy Walsh has a memorial set up in her Tehachapi livingroom for her son, Seth Walsh.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    In this family photo, Wendy Walsh holds her son, Seth, when he was a baby. He recently commited suicide at age 13 in Tehachapi.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    These are a few of the expressions or sayings Seth Walsh had written on his dresser in his Tehachapi home before his suicide.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    In this December 2010 file photo, Wendy Walsh holds up a then- fairly recent photo of her son, Seth, before his suicide the September before. He was getting a haircut at the time this photo was taken. Walsh is standing in front of the memorial she has put together for Seth in her Tehachapi living room.

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BY STEVEN MAYER, Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

The suicide note begins with Seth Walsh thanking his mom for having him and loving him.

But he also blames his school "for bringing you this sorrow."

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SETH'S SUICIDE NOTE Text of Seth Walsh's suicide note. Expletives have been altered.

Mom (Wendy); Amanda; Shane; Shawn

I love you. Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure. I know this will bring much pain. But, I will, hopefully, be in a better place than this s---hole. Please, put my body in burial, and visit my used body. And make sure to make the school feel like s--- for bringing you this sorrow. This life was a pleasure, mostly having you guys to pull me through the pain.

Hopefully I become the universe.

Seth

Wendy Walsh, the mother of the 13-year-old Tehachapi student who took his own life in September, fights back tears as she reads from the note -- the last expression of love and despair she would ever receive from her son.

In a powerful and heart-wrenching video released Thursday on YouTube, Mrs. Walsh joined with the American Civil Liberties Union to send a message to schools everywhere that it's time to get serious about anti-gay bullying.

"Seth's school did not care," the grieving mother said. "If they did care about Seth, they would have addressed the problem."

School officials say otherwise, that teachers and administrators at Jacobsen Middle School are caring, that all reported incidents are dealt with and that additional measures have been instituted since Seth's death.

The ACLU Thursday delivered a letter to the Tehachapi Unified School District demanding the district take steps to combat the harassment, ridicule and physical threats they say students are still suffering based on their perceived sexual orientation. In addition, The U.S. Department of Education's civil rights division is launching an investigation of the school district.

Neither Mrs. Walsh nor the ACLU would say whether a lawsuit is pending against the school district.

"Our principal goal is to protect students from harassment," said Elizabeth Gill, staff attorney for the ACLU. "It's pretty clear this is a huge problem for LGBT students in our schools."

LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender. Some also add a Q for questioning.

Gill said the ACLU talked to other students who reported that teachers and school administrators were aware that Seth was being harassed and, in some instances, participated in the harassment. One student reported that a teacher called Seth "fruity" in front of an entire class.

Mrs. Walsh, who also spoke to The Californian from her home in Tehachapi, said Seth told her he was gay when he was in the sixth grade. Over a period of years, he was called "fag," "homo," "queer" and worse names by students; was physically accosted, ridiculed and humiliated.

His grades went from A's and B's in the fifth grade to failing in the sixth and seventh grades.

California law requires schools to take specific steps to protect students from harassment based on sexual orientation, and Richard Swanson, superintendent of the 1,100-student Tehachapi Unified School District, said Thursday the district has responded.

Steps have been taken to address bullying in the schools, Swanson said, though he acknowledged the district has not gotten specific about bullying as it relates to sexual orientation.

The district has enrolled in a respected anti-bullying program developed at Clemson University, Swanson said. Counseling is available to any student who needs it and the school gives students the means to express themselves and any issues they may be facing.

In addition, the district has been in contact with LGBTQ advocates in Bakersfield and an anti-bullying task force has been established.

But the ACLU criticized the Clemson program for not being specific to sexual identity issues. Anti-discrimination policies should include actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as race, national origin, ethnicity, gender and religion, the ACLU said in its release.

"I don't think we've addressed Seth's issue in terms of sexuality directly," Swanson acknowledged.

In response to ACLU's criticism that Jacobsen has not held an all-school assembly to address Seth's death or the harassment that may have led to it, Swanson said experts in teen suicide suggest that large emotional gatherings can lead to copycat behaviors. Classroom settings and one-on-one counseling is advised, he said.

Reports of bullying have actually increased since Seth's suicide, Swanson said, as students have become more comfortable sharing their issues and anxieties with adults.

But if that's true, Mrs. Walsh asked, what does it say about the atmosphere at the school previous to her son's suicide?

"Why were kids afraid to come forward then?" she asked. "Why did it take a death for the school to acknowledge there's a problem?"

But Swanson suggested the shock of Seth's suicide may have made students realize they can't bottle up their feelings.

"The code of silence appears to be breaking a little bit," he said.

Meanwhile, Swanson added, the district remains open to new ways to address the crisis.

"From my perspective, we have a caring staff over there (at Jacobsen)," Swanson said. "We will continue to do everything possible to reduce the probability of it ever happening again."

According to a study published this year in the Journal of Adolescent Health, which was commissioned by National Children's Hospital, nine out of 10 LGBT students reported being harassed at school. More than half of the harassed students feel unsafe at school.

And a 2006 study by the California Safe Schools Coalition found that LGBT youth are three times more likely to commit suicide than heterosexual youth.

The ACLU's recommended steps for schools to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students include the following:

* Create strong and clear anti-harassment policies and programs.

* Take all complaints of harassment seriously.

* Provide ongoing professional development for teachers, school counselors and administrators about identifying and stopping anti-LGBT harassment.

* Explain the harmful impact of harassment to students and staff.

* Support Gay-Straight Alliances on campus.

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