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Sunday, Aug 26 2012 12:00 PM

Tehachapi Unified updates feds on anti-bullying efforts

BY JORGE BARRIENTOS Californian staff writer jbarrientos@bakersfield.com

Tehachapi Unified School District in the last several months has struggled to construct an anti-harassment curriculum, tried to bring students together with team-building programs, and surveyed students and staff on its new school atmosphere.

The steps are highlighted in records filed recently with the federal government -- the second of periodic reports Tehachapi Unified must file to comply with federal mandates -- to show the district has been taking anti-bullying mandates seriously.

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A TIMELINE: TEHACHAPI, BULLYING & SETH WALSH

Sept. 27, 2010: Seth Walsh dies following a suicide attempt days earlier. In a suicide note, he tells mother Wendy Walsh to "make sure to make the school feel like (expletive) for bringing you this sorrow."

Oct. 28, 2010: U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights receives a complaint from Wendy Walsh alleging Tehachapi Unified failed to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment. An investigation soon ensues.

June 16, 2011: The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California launches the Seth Walsh Students' Rights Project, aimed at combating bullying and discrimination in schools, particularly against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning students.

June 30, 2011: Department of Education Office for Civil Rights concludes the district violated federal prohibitions against sex-based harassment, that Walsh suffered sexual and gender-based harassment, and the district knew of the bullying but did not adequately investigate or respond to it.

The district signs a "resolution agreement" specifying how the district can right its wrongs.

July 5, 2011: Wendy Walsh sues Tehachapi Unified seeking compensation for wrongful-death damages, medical expenses and punitive damages.

Oct. 10, 2011: Gov. Jerry Brown signs Seth's Law, requiring all school districts to institute anti-harassment policies with shorter timelines for investigating bullying claims.

Sept. 13-14, 2011: Tehachapi Unified begins staff training on bullying and harassment.

July 1, 2012: Seth's Law takes effect.

July 31, 2012: Tehachapi Unified board approves "Safe and Inclusive Schools" curriculum for K-5.

July 9, 2013: Trial is scheduled to start for Walsh's wrongful-death case.

July 1, 2016: Agreement between district and the federal government finishes upon full compliance.

It's being held accountable for addressing bullying following the 2010 death of Seth Walsh, a Tehachapi middle-schooler who hanged himself after being bullied at school for being gay. The U.S. Department of Education found school officials neglected to protect Seth and address anti-gay bias in general.

The six-campus, 4,700-student district disputed the federal findings but agreed to do a slew of things to prevent sexual- and gender-based harassment at all of its schools until at least 2016.

During the first half of last school year, the district revised harassment and investigative policies; trained staff and students to be more sensitive to bullying; started a "safe and inclusive schools task force;" created a curriculum committee that meets regularly; increased campus security; and built a new bullying investigation and tracking system.

The records also showed, and continue to show, that gender-based harassment persists, but officials are acting.

Tehachapi Unified in the second half of last school year, and heading into the new school year, has done the following:

Staff continued to receive training on bullying prevention. School leaders received lessons on "cultural proficiency," which explains that educators can teach every child regardless of their background.

Jacobsen Middle School Principal Susan Ortega wrote about the lessons and her campus: "I know there are prejudices on campus that are not acceptable and that we must work together to alleviate these perceptions and prejudices."

The district surveyed some 600 middle schoolers and 1,000 high schoolers on their drug and alcohol use, safety at school, and bullying and harassment. Staff, too, were surveyed about their perceptions of student behavior and attitudes, policies, programs and overall school climate.

Most students participated in the anonymous and voluntary survey, which showed:

* 62 percent of eight-graders were made fun of at least once because of how they look or talk in the last 12 months. About 86 percent of them were afraid of being beaten up at school at least one time.

* Nearly half of high schoolers had sexual jokes, comments or gestures made to them at least one time. About one-third of ninth-graders had been pushed, shoved or hit at least one time at school.

Five to 8 percent of ninth-through-11th graders felt "unsafe" or "very unsafe" at school. In middle school, 16 percent of seventh-graders felt that way.

In April, the district held a morning-long "challenge day" team-building exercise for high school seniors. Students shared about themselves, discussed "labels," cliques and stereotypes, and posed "serious questions" to each other, including, "Have you ever felt or known a student that was afraid to come to school out of fear for safety?"

Students submitted their reflections of the day. One said, "I found it of a relief to know somebody else goes through hard stuff and finds the energy to go to school."

Another wrote the exercise was "necessary especially for a small town so that people can be seen at the same level and not be defined for labels or assumed stereotypes. It is necessary to broaden the diversity of the community."

Still another wrote: "I walked in doubting that the day was going to be lame, but instead was revealing, connecting and valuable."

A week in May called "Unity Week" focused on respect of others and anti-bullying.

Dozens of pages of feedback forms submitted show the development of the "Safe and Inclusive Schools" curriculum was not popular, and was attacked as promoting a pro-gay agenda.

Lessons for elementary students discussed ways intolerance of differences can lead to disrespect and bullying. Middle schoolers would learn about bullying behaviors, and ways to combat and report it. In high school, students would share their own and learn of others' personal experiences with prejudice, and explore ways that stereotypes are perpetuated.

Reviewers of the curriculum, parents mostly, said: "Too much of a homosexual agenda and encouraging non-competition," and it "violates religious beliefs." A few others wrote things like, "I believe the material is a good idea to get the children to understand others on different levels."

The backlash put the district between a rock and hard place -- being held legally liable if it didn't teach about harassment, and respecting the views of the conservative community.

On July 31, the Tehachapi Unified's school board approved the curriculum for its kindergarten through fifth-graders, which focused on treating other students "the way you want to be treated," and being kind to everyone.

At the same meeting, the board held off on approving a form that would allow parents to opt out their children from learning those new lessons after federal overseers said the form would violate the district's agreement to provide harassment training for all students.

The board is expected to discuss the idea again on Tuesday.

Schools Legal Services attorney Al Harris, who has been working to comply with the mandates, said it's possible parents may just refuse to send their students to class on the days curriculum is taught.

"If parents have a strongly held religious belief, and they think the school has no business compromising them, we're not going to get in a fight with individual parents," Harris said.

This school year, school officials sent out a new student discipline code to parents to review and sign. It reads: "In an effort to help students make positive choices, our district has implemented the Character Counts Program. This program is based on educating and encouraging our students to model the six pillars of character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. With these in place, we can all excel."

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