Seth Walsh was a typical 13-year-old. He loved dogs and riding his bike, listening to music, and hanging out with friends.
But he was also terrified of going to school. The gentle, free-spirited boy from rural Kern County, who listened to Mozart in the shower and aspired to be a doctor, endured relentless harassment from classmates because he was gay.
Finally, in September 2010, the abuse wore him out, and Seth hanged himself from a tree in his backyard.
For Seth's mother, a brief respite from grief came Monday in San Francisco, as she and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, celebrated a new state anti-bullying law named in honor of her son.
"This makes it a little easier," Wendy Walsh said on the steps of the state building on McAllister Street. "I still feel very sad, but it helps knowing that Seth's death could help other kids."
The law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, sets antiharassment standards for all California public schools. It requires teachers who witness bullying to intervene and sets up an easy procedure for parents and students to file bullying complaints. Repeat offenders will be suspended.
Providing uniformity
Ammiano said he'd like to strengthen the law at some point, adding counseling and education for students caught bullying. But Seth's Law, coupled with recent legislation to include the contributions of lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual people to the curriculum, is a good start, he said.
"We looked at what was protecting students from bullying, and it was very fragmented," he said. "We needed a state umbrella to set some uniformity on this issue. To get this passed feels terrific, but there's more to come."
The bill passed both houses of the state Legislature along party lines, and will cost the state about $175,000 a year to publicize and monitor.
A formal complaint system would have been a huge help for Wendy Walsh as she battled the Tehachapi Unified School District, she said. Despite frequent pleas to the district about the treatment of her son, administrators took very little action, she said.
Tehachapi school officials couldn't comment on the specifics of Seth's case because of pending litigation but said his death jolted the small mountain town an hour southeast of Bakersfield.
"The tragic loss of Seth Walsh inspired this legislation, which ultimately serves to honor the civil rights of all students in our public schools," Lisa Gilbert, interim superintendent, wrote in an e-mail.
Since then, the district has adopted a formal complaint procedure, trained staff in antidiscrimination policies, and held meetings with parents about bullying.
Seth's problems began in fifth grade, Walsh said. He wasn't interested in sports and had few male friends. He became an easy target.
"He'd come home and say, 'Mom, everyone's calling me gay, and it's really bothering me,' " she said. "I said, 'Well, let's go talk to the principal and teacher.' "
Leaving school
They did, with few results. The attacks escalated in sixth and seventh grade, with students telling Seth he was "going to burn in hell" and they hoped he'd kill himself, Walsh said.
Seth's grades plummeted from A's and B's to D's and F's. Finally, at a loss as to how to lessen her son's misery, Walsh withdrew Seth from school and enrolled him first at a charter school and then an independent study program.
One day in September 2010, he was at a park with friends when a group of teenagers hugged him, then said, "You'll like that because you're gay," Walsh said.
At home that afternoon, Seth was especially despondent, his mother said.
"He said, 'I guess I'll have to live like a hermit the rest of my life,' " she said.
That afternoon, Walsh found her son in the backyard. He died later at a hospital. He had left a note inside the house that read, in part: "I know this will bring much pain, but hopefully I will be in a better place."
Seth's case garnered national headlines, but he's hardly alone. More than 90 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students in California report some type of harassment, and 40 percent say they've been physically assaulted, said James Gilliam, deputy executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Southern California chapter.
Seventh grade seems to be the nadir, he said.
"It really is terrible," Gilliam said. "Imagine walking down a long hall six times a day, being called a faggot the whole way. Or not going to the bathroom all day for fear of getting beat up."
Despite the plethora of gay characters in movies and on TV, antigay harassment remains as prevalent as ever, particularly outside cities, Gilliam said. Adolescents might be confused by the mixed messages they're receiving from the grown-up world: that it's OK to be gay and proud, but gay people can't get married in most states, until recently couldn't serve in the military, and have few gay male role models in schools or sports teams.
"Imagine how this seems to a 13-year-old, who's already confused about everything," he said. "We're saying, 'It's OK to come out, but here are the limits.' "
Eliminating confusion
Legislation like Seth's Law helps eliminate some of the confusion, at least at the school district level, Gilliam said.
"It gives us an additional tool," he said. "Although what would be perfect is to give education resources to bullies, so they won't be bullies anymore."
Suicide hotline
Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning youths who are suffering from depression or feeling suicidal can call (866) 488-7386 or go to for free, 24-hour help.
E-mail Carolyn Jones at