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Friday, Sep 24 2010 07:04 PM

Investigation for bullying after attempted suicide

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

Police and school officials are investigating what's being reported as an attempted suicide of a 13-year-old Tehachapi boy that may have bullying connections.

In the meantime, the family of Seth Walsh is asking, in a statement, for privacy while he is "fighting for his life in a coma."

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The family is accepting donations to the Seth Walsh Faith Fund at Union Bank of California. Make checks payable to Wendy Walsh.

"The circumstances which led to Seth's current condition are neither his family's nor his friend's focus at this time," the statement reads. "Seth's family is simply requesting respect for their privacy, positive support and prayers for Seth!"

The boy was found Sunday unconscious and not breathing, and it appeared he had tried to hang himself from a tree branch, according to police reports. He was taken by helicopter to Kern Medical Center.

Tehachapi Police Department officials on Friday said detectives and school resource officers are investigating the attempted suicide.

"(Bullying) is obviously something we're looking at," said Sgt. Wyatt Empey.

School officials are leaving it up to police to investigate, but are now looking into whether any students knew of the possible bullying and didn't speak up, Tehachapi Union School District Superintendent Richard Swanson said.

Walsh attended Jacobsen Middle School last year and for two weeks this school year before transferring into independent study. Swanson said while Walsh was there, he was a well-respected student and liked by staff.

"These kinds of difficulties were not on the horizon," he said. "It doesn't mean they weren't surfacing outside."

The school and district immediately investigate reports of bullying and concerned parties can file complaints with the district. In this case, Swanson said, there was never a complaint filed.

"There are a definite set of policies that forbid this type of thing," Swanson said, adding that bullying is under the same rubric as sexual harassment. "We don't condone this type of thing."

School officials are also talking and providing counseling to students, and making sure they understand how to handle similar situations in the future.

"If the kids who know this young man had gone to an adult early on, if they knew the signs, maybe this could have been avoided," Swanson said.

Students in the district learn about respect, tolerance and character, Swanson said. A quarterly assembly addresses bullying. In high schools, students have peer support groups and learn tolerance curriculum, complete with a trip to The Museum of Tolerance.

Schools throughout Kern are well-versed in bullying training, especially Tehachapi schools and Jacobsen Middle, said Daryl Thiesen, a prevention programs coordinator with the School-Community Partnerships. In fact, that Kern County Superintendent of Schools program offered trainings at Jacobsen several times in the last five years.

The difficulty with bullying, he said, is there's a culture of silence among students to not speak up when it's happening.

"You're told you shouldn't be a snitch or tattler," Thiesen said. "It's tough. The reality is you can't put cameras and campus security everywhere."

The program trains to catch bullying indicators and harassment, and how to act and intervene.

In Kern County, 36 percent of students in fifth grade reported being hit or pushed "some of the time," 9 percent "most of the time" and 7 percent "all of the time," according to the California Healthy Kids Survey from 2007 to 2009. About 36 percent of students reported mean rumors were spread about them "some of the time," 9 percent "most of the time" and 9 percent "all of the time."

But 91 percent of students in Kern said they felt safe at school "some," "most" or "all of the time."

On average, about 15 to 30 percent of students here say they have seen a prevalence of bullying on campus, Thiesen said citing studies.

The Walsh family statement also said: "A negative action ... by adults and children ... will not solve or help anyone! Violence is not the answer! Please everyone, be kind and love one another!"

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