When the Tehachapi school district in California failed to stop or prevent 13-year-old middle school student Seth Walsh from being repeatedly teased and bullied by his peers, the district violated federal discrimination and harassment laws, the federal Departments of Justice and Education said Friday.
The finding is the first of its kind since school districts were sent “dear colleague” letters last October outlining their responsibilities in cases of bullying.
“A school is responsible for addressing harassment incidents about which it knows or reasonably should have known,” wrote Russlyn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights.
Seth’s death was just one month before that letter was sent. He had tried to hang himself, and then died a week later.
To resolve the federal investigation into the district’s inaction during the two years that Seth was harassed, the school district agreed this week to revise its policies and regulations related to sexual and gender-based harassment and hire a consultant to provide mandatory trainings on sexual and gender-based harassment for all students, administrators, teachers, counselors, and other staff members who interact with students, among other things.
In a letter to the district, the two federal departments said Seth, who eventually came out as gay, was teased for carrying a Hello Kitty backpack, wearing scarves and fitted T-shirts, and for his somewhat effeminate mannerisms and speech.
After he hung himself in September, a complaint filed with the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights alleged that the school district did nothing to prevent the harassment Seth suffered.
A letter to the district on Thursday detailed some of the abuses Seth experienced, including having objects thrown at him, being asked out by a male classmate as a prank, and being called evil.
But classmates didn’t stop there. “On one occasion,” the letter reads, “a student attempted to shove a pencil up the seat of the [Seth’s] pants.”
The Tehachapi school district’s offices were closed Friday, and a home number for Superintendent Richard Swanson was not working.
According to the agreement, the 4,900-student school district must also assess the presence of sexual and gender-based harassment in its schools through school climate surveys, adopt appropriate actions to address issues identified by those surveys, and form an advisory committee of administrators, students, and parents to advise the district on school climate issues related to sex-based harassment.
The letter to the district mentioned some of the steps that the school district did take to address Seth’s harassment. One student who bullied him was suspended, for example. A few students were given detention. And a school newsletter made a point to state that all students are different.
In part, the message read: “Please discuss with your child that while they may find some students different and ‘odd’, everyone deserves the right to receive an education without being harassed or bullied because of their hairstyle or fashion sense or their mannerisms or their weight or their ... you get the picture. While we aren’t going to hold hands in a giant circle and sing ‘Kumbaya’ we do need to respect each other and even celebrate our uniqueness.”
But classmates continued to harass and bully Seth, the letter says. And when Seth’s mother requested he be enrolled in independent study so he could get away from classmates who wouldn’t leave him alone, the school didn’t inquire about the reasons.
After his death, the school district incorrectly posted a note on its website indicating that Seth attended school erratically and that he wasn’t well known by school staff.
“The statement failed to acknowledge that the main reason the Student was placed on independent study was to avoid the harassment he was experiencing at school,” the letter reads.
In his suicide note, Seth asked his family to deal with the school:
I love you. Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure. I know this will bring much pain. But I will hopefully be in a better place than this s**t hole. Please, put my body in burial and visit my used body. And make sure to make the school feel like s**t for bringing you this sorrow."
Photo: Wendy Walsh holds up a photo of her son, Seth, taken before his suicide in Sept. 2010. (Casey Christie/The Bakersfield Californian/AP-File)
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.