The American Civil Liberties Union delivered a letter today to the Tehachapi Unified School District in Tehachapi, California, demanding that the school take steps to address a climate of pervasive anti-gay bullying that persists in Tehachapi schools.
Seth Walsh, a student who endured years of bullying in Tehachapi schools, hanged himself from a plum tree in his family’s backyard on September 19. Seth’s mother found him. Seth was on life support for nine days and died on September 28. Seth was thirteen years old. Wendy Walsh contacted the ACLU after her son’s death because she wanted to make sure that no other LGBT students would suffer what her son suffered. The ACLU today also released a video statement recorded by Wendy Walsh.
“We went down to Tehachapi and talked with Seth’s family, with his friends, and with other students,” said Elizabeth Gill, Staff Attorney for the ACLU’s LGBT and AIDS Project, “and we found that even after Seth’s death the school district had not taken adequate steps to address anti-gay bullying. Some anti-bullying posters were put and one school administer was scheduled to attend one anti-harrasment training session.”
Seth, who came out to his parents in the sixth grade, cited the verbal and physical harassment he experienced at Tehachapi schools in the suicide note he left for his family. Seth’s mother reported the harassment to school administrators before her son’s death. Not only did school officials do nothing to stop the harassment, the ACLU’s investigation found that teachers and administrators encouraged and participated in the harassment:
One teacher called Seth “fruity” in front of an entire class. At one point kids were calling him anti-gay names in the hallway at school. A school administrator was right there and heard it all, and turned and walked away without doing anything.
In the course of its investigation the ACLU spoke to LGBT students currently enrolled in the Tehachapi schools and found that anti-gay bullying—even in the wake of Seth’s suicide—remains a pervasive problem in the school district.
“The problem persists,” said Gill. “I don’t want to say that nothing has changed—they did put up a couple of posters. But it’s not enough. To address the bullying, to create a safe environment for all students, much more needs to happen.”
The ACLU’s letter outlines five steps—five simple steps—that the school district can take:
1. Have strong and clear anti-harassment policies and programs
2. Take all complaints of harassment seriously & properly address them when they happen
3. Provide ongoing training for students, teachers, school counselors and administrators
4. Explain the harmful impact of harassment to students and staff
5. Support Gay-Straight Alliances on campus
“It’s our hope that the Tehachapi Unified School District will get our letter and say thank you for alerting us and giving us this info and we’ll work with you in taking these steps,” says Gill.
And if the school doesn’t take these steps?
“We have resolved a lot of school issues without lawsuits,” said Gill, although a lawsuit remains a possibility. Gill added that the Department of Education has also opened an investigation into the Tehachapi Unified School District.
The ACLU is calling on all schools—not just schools in Tehachapi—to take the five steps and is also calling for the passage of the federal Student Non-Discrimination Act (SDNA), which would add sexual orientation to existing federal laws that ban discrimination against students based race, color, sex, religion, disability or national origin. The SNDA would also provide LGBT students and their families with legal recourse against schools that promote or tolerate harassment or discriminatory treatment.