Tehachapi Teenager’s Suicide Underscores Urgent Need for Schools to Uphold Legal Obligations to Protect LGBTQ Students from Harassment

LOS ANGELES – The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California today announced the launch of the Seth Walsh Students’ Rights Project (“Seth Walsh Project”) — a major new initiative aimed at combating bullying and discrimination in California schools, particularly harassment directed at lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning students.

The creation of the Seth Walsh Project was prompted by the September 2010 suicide of Seth Walsh, a thirteen-year-old eight-grade student at Tehachapi’s Jacobsen Middle School.  Since coming out as gay in the sixth grade, Seth was subjected to severe verbal harassment based on his sexual orientation and refusal to conform to traditional gender stereotypes. 

“No mother should ever have to lose their child to intolerance and anti-gay harassment, especially when it occurs in a place that should be providing them with an education and putting them on a path to a promising future,” said Wendy Walsh, mother of Seth.  “I am so proud and think it is phenomenal that the ACLU of Southern California has chosen to name their students’ rights project after my beautiful, loving son, Seth.”

Attorneys, community organizers, and policy advocates in the Seth Walsh Project will investigate incidents of harassment and discrimination; educate administrators and teachers of their responsibilities under both state and federal law to make sure all students have a safe learning environment; and work closely with LGBTQ students and their parents to ensure they have the same educational opportunities as their peers.  The ACLU/SC’s Seth Walsh Project will also work with other civil rights organizations in California to conduct community education events about pending legislation aimed at curbing anti-gay harassment and discrimination, including the Student Non-Discrimination Act and Seth’s Law.

“As a gay man who attended public schools in rural Tennessee in the 1970’s and 80’s, I know firsthand how painful anti-gay bullying can be; for such harassment to continue against LGBTQ students thirty years later is unthinkable,” said James Gilliam, deputy executive director of the ACLU of Southern California and director of the newly-established Seth Walsh Project.  “School districts, teachers, and administrators have a legal obligation to ensure that LGBTQ students are safe at school, and we intend to hold them to that duty.”

According to recent studies, as many as nine in ten LGBTQ students have been the victim of harassment based on their real or perceived sexual orientation or nonconforming gender identity.  Nearly two-thirds of such students reported feeling unsafe at school.  Seth’s was one of at least eleven LGBTQ teen suicides that occurred last fall that captured enough media attention to push anti-gay bullying and “bullycide” into the national conversation.

“All students have a right to attend school in a safe learning environment, and their parents have a right to know their children will come home unharmed,” said Hector Villagra, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “Far too often, teachers and administrators discount—or worse, ignore entirely—incidents of violence happening right under their noses.  The Seth Walsh Project aims to correct this crisis and will save lives,” said Villagra. 

The ACLU of Southern California’s Seth Walsh Project is generously supported in part by donations from the David Bohnett Foundation and the It Gets Better Project.

The Seth Walsh Project: The Bullying Stops Here!