SAN FRANCISCO — Today, the California affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union partnered with Wendy Walsh, mother of 13 year-old Seth Walsh who recently took his own life after enduring years of anti-gay harassment at school, to send an important message to schools about anti-gay bullying. California law, in particular, requires schools to take specific steps to protect students from harassment based on sexual orientation.
"Seth told me he was gay when he was in the sixth grade. He was a wonderful, loving child, and I loved him for who he was. I can't bring my son back. But schools can make a difference today to keep this from happening to any more young people," said Wendy Walsh. "Schools need to take harassment and bullying seriously when parents or students tell them about it, and when they see it in the halls." Wendy also recorded an online video message, the first time she has spoken publicly since her son's death, which was released today.
An ACLU investigation found that officials in the Tehachapi Unified School District knew about and largely ignored the harassment Seth faced. Even after Seth's death, the district has not taken adequate steps to remedy the hostile environment for students who are or are perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). The U.S. Department of Education has also launched an investigation of the school district. In a letter sent today, the ACLU outlines several immediate steps the district should take to create a safe environment for LGBT students. These steps are a template for schools to ensure that they are protecting all vulnerable students.
"Students have the right to be safe and supported at school for being exactly who they are," said Elizabeth Gill, staff attorney for the ACLU's LGBT Project and the ACLU of Northern California. "And parents deserve to know that their kids are going to school in a respectful environment where they are nurtured to reach their full potential. Public schools have a duty protect to protect students from harassment based on sexual orientation."
On Sept. 19 Seth hanged himself from a tree in the family's backyard after facing years of relentless harassment that school officials effectively ignored. Seth was on life support for nine days before he died on Sept. 28. Seth is one of at least 11 LGBT young people who have taken their own lives in the past three months following severe harassment.
Seth was bullied based on perceived sexual orientation since the fifth grade, when students started calling him "gay." As he got older, the harassment became more frequent and severe. By seventh grade, taunts and verbal abuse were a constant occurrence. Students regularly called him "fag" and "queer." He was afraid to use the restroom or be in the boy's locker room before gym class. Seth's mother and close friends report that teachers and school administrators were aware that Seth was being harassed and, in some instances, participated in the harassment. Another student reported that one teacher called Seth "fruity" in front of an entire class. His mother's pleas to the school for help were often brushed aside. Seth had always been a good student, receiving A's and B's, but his grades quickly dropped to failing as the harassment continued. Friends reported that he became depressed and withdrawn. A note Seth left upon his death expresses love for his family and close friends, and anger at the school "for bringing you this sorrow."
Schools Can Make a Difference
"We can all agree that anti-LGBT harassment is a problem, but the unfortunate reality is that schools don't always have the tools or knowledge to adequately protect LGBT students," said James Gilliam, deputy executive director at the ACLU of Southern California. "Better harassment policies save lives and make a safer environment for all students."
In a recent national survey, nine out of 10 LGBT students reported being harassed at school. More than half of the LGBT students who are harassed at school because of their sexual orientation feel unsafe at school. A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in early 2010 presents solid data showing that LGBT youth experience significantly more bullying than heterosexual youth. A result of these factors is that LGBT youth are three times as likely to commit suicide as heterosexual youth.
The ACLU's recommended steps for schools to protect LGBT students include the following:
Five Steps for Safer Schools:
- Create strong and clear anti-harassment policies and programs.
- Take all complaints of harassment seriously.
- Provide ongoing professional development for teachers, school counselors and administrators about identifying and stopping anti-LGBT harassment.
- Explain the harmful impact of harassment to students and staff
- Support Gay-Straight Alliances on campus
The ACLU's recommendations specify that anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies should include actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as race, national origin, ethnicity, gender, and religion.