Local News

Tuesday, Jul 05 2011 03:01 PM

Student's mother files lawsuit

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    Michael Fagans / The Californian Wendy Walsh describes why she has filed a wrongful death lawsuit she has filed against the Tehachapi Unified School District as her attorney Daniel Rodriguez listens in his offices in Bakersfield on Tuesday afternoon. "It has been the most difficult time of my life," said Wendy Walsh.

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    By Courtesy Walsh Family/Los Angeles Times/MCT

    Seth Walsh, right, shown in this family photo with his brother Shawn, was 13 when he hung himself after being teased in a local park during a time when he was searching for his sexual identity.

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BY JORGE BARRIENTOS, Californian staff writer jbarrientos@bakersfield.com

Just days after federal officials found the Tehachapi Unified School District failed to investigate or respond appropriately to the bullying of a gay, 13-year-old middle school student who later hanged himself, his mother filed a wrongful-death lawsuit.

In fact, the findings of the investigation released Friday are the foundation for Wendy Walsh's suit. The suit states that ongoing harassment of her son Seth was common knowledge by school staff, they did little to stop it, and because of the negligence, Seth hanged himself.

Walsh, in a suit filed Tuesday, is seeking compensation for wrongful-death damages, medical expenses and punitive damages.

"I want accountability," Walsh said Tuesday, sitting next to her attorney, Daniel Rodriguez.

In September, Seth Walsh hanged himself in his backyard and died a week later. He left a suicide note expressing anger at his school "for bringing you this sorrow."

Tehachapi Unified's school board in April rejected a wrongful-death claim filed by Walsh, as is routine. The filing and rejection of a claim are often the precursors to a lawsuit.

The suit names as defendants the school district, Superintendent Richard Swanson, Jacobsen Middle School Principal Susan Ortega, Vice Principal Paul Kaminski, teacher (first name not clear) Kirby, teacher Laura Haight, teacher Laura Kabonic and teacher Marty Feehan.

The findings of the seven-month investigation by the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice is being considered by some civil-rights groups as "landmark."

As a result of that investigation, Tehachapi Unified will soon be taking several steps to stop sexual- and gender-based harassment, prevent its recurrence and eliminate a hostile environment. That includes revising policies; training all students, administrators, teachers and other staff; and repeatedly surveying the campuses on sex-based harassment issues.

Tehachapi Unified officials disagreed with and disputed the federal investigation's findings, but signed off on making changes -- changes that Walsh had been hoping for, she said.

So why a lawsuit?

Attorney Rodriguez -- who has 30 years of experience, including on several high-profile wrongful death cases -- said the district had a chance two years ago to follow through with changes and did not, as evidenced by the new federal findings. In 2009, in a case Rodriguez represented, the district instituted sexual-harassment policy changes in resolving a different federal complaint, documents show.

A lawsuit will help make sure the district follows the rules, Rodriguez said.

School officials could not be reached Tuesday, though they typically do not comment on pending litigation. Rodriguez said he anticipates the case could go to trial.

Rodriguez called the new investigative findings by the federal agencies "powerful" to his case, and gives a "real perspective." He cites verbatim passages from federal findings in his lawsuit.

"This is a separate independent look at the case," Rodriguez said Friday of the federal investigation, "an objective look at the school environment."

Through this all, Walsh said the last several months have "been the most difficult time in my life." She has two other sons -- one is now homeschooled and the other has graduated from high school.

"I lost my mother, and that pales in comparison (to losing Seth)," Walsh said.

But from Seth's death, several anti-bullying initiatives have grown. And they've been boosted by presentations from Walsh in front of state and federal policy makers.

A state bill called Seth's Law, which would create an anti-bullying system at all California schools that don't have them already, has been passed by the Assembly and lies with the state Senate. And the ACLU of Southern California launched the "Seth Walsh Students' Rights Project" aimed at combating bullying and discrimination in California schools.

Walsh said she has been "pleased" with the ongoing anti-bullying efforts nationally in her son's memory.

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