Local News

Monday, Oct 10 2011 06:01 PM

Governor signs Seth's Law

BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

Nothing can bring back Wendy Walsh's son Seth, but the Tehachapi mom had high praise Monday for a newly enacted law designed to protect other gay students from repeated bullying in school.

California Gov. Jerry Brown on Sunday signed Seth's Law, a bill named in memory of Seth Walsh, who was just 13 last year when he committed suicide, reportedly after enduring bullying in school for being gay.

The law, which goes into effect in July, will create an anti-bullying system at all California schools by requiring school districts to institute anti-harassment policies and an online complaint procedure, with shorter timelines for investigating claims of bullying.

"I don't care if you're gay or straight," Walsh said. "Bullying in any form is wrong."

The new law, she said, will give schools the tools they need to make sure the problem isn't minimized -- or worse, ignored or enabled by school authorities.

Seth hanged himself in his backyard in September 2010. He left a suicide note for his family expressing anger at his school "for bringing you this sorrow."

Officials at Tehachapi Unified School District said earlier this year that steps had been taken to address bullying in the schools. But they acknowledged the district had not gotten specific about bullying as it relates to sexual orientation.

This summer, a federal investigation found the district failed to "adequately investigate or respond appropriately" to the bullying of Seth.

Days later, Walsh filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the district, asserting that continued harassment of Seth was common knowledge by school staff, and that they did little to stop it. The lawsuit is ongoing.

Seth's Law was authored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, and co-sponsored by such groups as Equality California, ACLU of California, National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the Gay-Straight Alliance Network.

Rebekah Orr, communications director for Equality California, said Monday the new law will help protect students from destructive bullying and intimidation.

The bullying of gay and lesbian students, and others who may be questioning their sexual orientation, "has often gone unnoticed by teachers and administrators until the problem becomes quite severe," Orr said.

Even before the bill was signed into law, local schools have been increasing anti-bullying efforts with presentations, assemblies and workshops.

Bakersfield City School District had already begun a review of its bullying policies with the intention of being "proactive" in updating guidelines, said district spokesman Steve Gabbitas.

He wasn't immediately sure whether the changes the district has been considering would line up perfectly with the new guidelines under Seth's Law. But he didn't anticipate any major difficulties in complying with the law, including adding an online complaint form on the district's website.

The bill did not win over everybody locally.

State Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, voted against the bill, telling The Californian in September that schools already are subjected to too many "one-size-fits-all" state laws.

"That's why we have school boards and superintendents," said Fuller, former Bakersfield City School District superintendent.

Meanwhile, Seth's Law is not the only new legislation to address bullying on California's campuses.

The governor also signed AB 620, which requests that state colleges and universities include policies on harassment and bullying in their rules of student conduct. Further, an employee at each campus should be designated as a point of contact to address the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender faculty, staff and students.

"It's not as though bullying stops once a person gets a high school diploma and goes on to college," Orr said.

Sometimes, she added, it only gets worse.

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