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By Casey Christie / The Californian
BY JORGE BARRIENTOS, Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
An Assembly bill named in memory of a 13-year-old Tehachapi student who committed suicide reportedly after being bullied in school for being gay was introduced Monday in an attempt to create an anti-bullying system at all California schools.
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, said Monday via phone that the proposed Seth’s Law, AB 9, will help create a safe school environment for all students, but in particular for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.
The bill — co-sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, Equality California, National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Gay-Straight Alliance Network — pays homage to Seth Walsh.
Ammiano, a former school teacher and openly gay man, said he was bullied as a student.
“Each day throughout California, LGBT youth experience harassment,” Ammiano said in a statement. “I am proud to introduce this bill in honor of Seth Walsh, which will give schools the necessary tools to prevent any young person from being bullied, harassed or worse because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.”
He added during a phone interview: “I did not take the way out the way Seth did. I very lucky about that.”
Seth Walsh hanged himself in his backyard in September, and in a suicide note expressed anger at his school “for bringing you this sorrow.”
After that, mother Wendy Walsh and the bill sponsors claimed Tehachapi Unified School District officials ignored complaints of bullying against Seth, and the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights stepped in to investigate the district’s handling of bullying claims connected with Seth’s death. That investigation is ongoing, officials said.
But since Seth’s death, Tehachapi Unified officials have maintained teachers and administrators at Jacobsen Middle School — where Seth attended before he was homeschooled — were caring, that all reported incidents were dealt with and that additional measures have been instituted since his death.
Even more, school officials here and throughout the state have also said the office of the Kern County Superintendent of Schools is among the most progressive in California in combating bullying.
In past interviews, Wendy Walsh told The Californian she wanted “parents to feel their children will be safe when they drop them off at school. I did not feel that way. And Seth obviously did not feel that way.”
The bill sponsors argue that schools do not have the tools or knowledge to adequately protect LGBT students from bullying, and students, parents and school employees often don’t know what the rules are or what to do if bullying occurs.
The sponsors of the law say it would create anti-harassment policies and programs in school that don’t have them already; create a system to ensure all reports of harassment are taken seriously, addressed quickly and that parents and students understand the process for making these complaints; explain the impact of bullying and discrimination to students and staff; and provide “ongoing professional development for teachers, school counselors and administrators about identifying and stopping harassment and discrimination and creating a school-wide culture of inclusion and respect for difference.”
Specifically, the law would make schools provide bullying complaint forms on its websites, give schools a timeline to investigate and resolve complaints, and have them post policies throughout campuses.
Said Elizabeth Gill, lead attorney with American Civil Liberties Union in California, “This is really about thinking about the most vulnerable students in California, and trying to give schools the tools to protect them.”
Wendy Walsh did not wish to speak to media Monday, officials said. But in a statement, Walsh said, “I can’t bring my son back. But schools can make a difference today by taking bullying seriously when students and parents tell them about it. It’s time for change. We have to create better schools for everyone.”
Sponsoring officials expect the bill will be heard sometime in the next few months, Ammiano said. If passed, Seth’s Law would go into law in July 2012.
“We do want to save some lives here,” Ammiano said. “Plus the education — drawing attention to it all — will benefit every school.”
Last week, the Student Non-Discrimination Act was reintroduced in Congress to try to protect students in public schools from anti-LGBT bullying; that was also inspired by the death of Seth Walsh. Wendy Walsh, at the conference, said, “I can’t bring my son back. But Congress can make a difference today to protect young people across the country just like Seth ... Not one more child in this country should have to go through what my son did. No child should be bullied the way he was.”
The bill introductions follow months of activism on the part of gay rights advocates, celebrities and politicians, including President Obama, all calling for stricter policies on bullying in schools. The federal department of education in October sent letters to thousands of school districts setting guidelines for bullying prevention and warning of reprimands — losing federal funding, for example — to those who didn’t follow them.