BY JORGE BARRIENTOS, Californian staff writer email@example.com
A seven-month, “landmark” federal investigation has found that the Tehachapi 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.
For failing to take steps to stop harassment, prevent its recurrence or eliminate a hostile environment, the district now must do a slew of things to prevent sexual- and gender-based harassment at all its schools under a “resolution agreement.”
That includes revising harassment policies; hiring a consultant to train all students, administrators, teachers and other staff; and consistently surveying the campuses on sex-based harassment issues.
The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network and American Civil Liberties Union called it a “landmark” case that will force schools to address bullying or face the consequences.
The conclusion of the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice inquiry comes nine months after Seth Walsh hanged himself in his backyard. In a suicide note he expressed anger at his school “for bringing you this sorrow.”
“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. Seth’s story and others like it sadly demonstrate that a school’s failure to address and prevent harassment can have tragic consequences,” said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the department’s Civil Rights Division.
“We commend the school district for working with the departments to address this matter effectively and encourage other school districts to take affirmative steps to ensure that all students can go to school without facing discrimination and harassment.”
The departments’ civil rights investigation was its first investigation of bullying since October, when it sent out letters to school districts nationwide setting guidelines for bullying prevention and warning of reprimands to those who didn’t follow them.
Seth’s mother, Wendy Walsh, has told The Californian that Seth told her he was gay when he was in the sixth grade. Over a period of years, he was ridiculed, harassed and physically attacked by students. His grades declined dramatically, she said.
School officials have said teachers and administrators at Jacobsen Middle School — where Seth attended before he chose to be homeschooled — were caring, that all reported incidents were dealt with and that additional measures have been instituted since his death.
The superintendent of the the six-campus, 5,000-student district, Richard Swanson, said the district is looking forward to making changes with a “can-do attitude.”
“We’re taking their findings as a give in,” Swanson said. “The district will try to take a leadership position in this and respond positively. We want to stop bullying.”
The investigation — which included interviews with Seth’s family, friends, district staff and about 75 classmates — found Seth was harassed by peers for more than two years for being gay, which “interfered with his education” and forced him into independent study to escape it.
And despite having notice of the harassment, the district did not adequately investigate or otherwise respond to it, the feds say.
According to the resolution agreement, Tehachapi Unified disagrees with and disputes the findings, but the school board “wishes to clearly communicate its commitment to ensuring an educational environment free from harassment, in which the individual civil and constitutional rights of each student are protected.”
Board President Mary Graham said she did not want to comment on the investigation or demands of the district because she had not been notified they had been made public.
But Tehachapi Unified had been looking at ways “to make things better” before the departments got involved.
“The board does not tolerate bullying of any kind. We don’t care what kind of bullying it is,” she 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 school district will have to follow a strict timeline in addressing issues, according to an agreement that 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. Also by that date, the district must hire a consultant (paid for by the department) to provide mandatory trainings on harassment to students and employees.
• No later than 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.”
In addition, the district will need to:
• Appoint district-level officials to review all bullying reports within five days of receiving a bullying complaint. By Aug. 17, Tehachapi needs to 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 district does not comply, the case could be referred to the Justice Department for litigation, and Tehachapi could lose federal funding.
Superintendent Swanson said the “cost (of complying) is always a concern,” but Tehachapi will work to follow through. It will cost Tehachapi to mail policy updates to parents, for example.
“We have every indication that the district will comply with the agreement and honor its commitments,” said Jim Bradshaw, U.S. Department of Education spokesman, in an email. “In virtually all cases, districts live up to their agreements and comply with the civil rights laws.”
Wendy Walsh referred questions about the findings to Bakersfield attorney Daniel Rodriguez, who is representing her as she pursues a wrongful death lawsuit against Tehachapi Unified.
Rodriguez said reading in the department 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.”
Seth’s story has inspired a number of initiatives throughout California that address gender-based harassment.
A state bill called Seth’s Law — that would create an anti-bullying system at all California schools that don’t have them already — has been passed by the Assembly and heads to the state Senate.
And the ACLU of Southern California recently launched the “Seth Walsh Students’ Rights Project” aimed at combating bullying and discrimination in California schools, particularly against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning students.
James Gilliam, director of the Seth Walsh Project, said he will use this case for widespread advocacy, to make sure schools are aware of their obligations in addressing gender-based harassment.
“This will make a real difference in the climate at our schools,” Gilliam said. “Schools cannot look the other way. This is great for Tehachapi, and schools across the country.”