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Feds: School failed to stop bullying of gay student

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The Tehachapi Unified School District violated civil rights law by failing to stop the persistent bullying of Seth Walsh, a 13-year-old gay middle school student who committed suicide, federal investigators have concluded.

As a result of a settlement with the U.S. Justice and Education departments, the Tehachapi district has agreed to survey all its schools and enact new policies and strategies to stamp out gender- and sexuality-based harassment.

The investigation followed the death of Walsh, an eighth-grader at Jacobsen Middle School who committed suicide in September after being taunted and attacked by classmates. Walsh's story sparked outrage and a national dialogue about the harassment of gay and lesbian students in public schools.

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“All students have the right to go to school without fearing harassment on the basis of their sex, including because they do not conform to gender stereotypes," Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said in a statement. "Seth’s story and others like it sadly demonstrate that a school’s failure to address and prevent harassment can have tragic consequences. We commend the school district for working with the departments to address this matter effectively and encourage other school districts to take affirmative steps to ensure that all students can go to school without facing discrimination and harassment.”

Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, said: “We know that if students aren't safe, then students aren't learning. Bullying, sexual harassment and gender stereotyping – of any student, including LBGT students – have no place in our nation’s schools. We must work to stop those abusive behaviors when they take place, repair their harmful effects and prevent them from happening in the future. Today's announcement is an important step in that direction.”

District officials were unavailable for comment. Tehachapi Unified is a 4,900-student district in Kern County.

Last week, federal authorities sent a letter  to district Superintendent Richard Swanson, informing him of the results of the investigation, which included interviews with Walsh's family, friends, district staff and administrators, and about 75 classmates. The investigators concluded Walsh was hounded by peers for more than two years for being gay. Despite learning of Walsh's plight, the Tehachapi district didn't act to stop it.

The United States concludes that the Student was subject to persistent, pervasive, and often severe sex-based harassment that resulted in a hostile educational environment of which the District had notice, and that the District failed to take steps sufficient to stop the harassment, to prevent its recurrence, or to eliminate the hostile environment.

Although the District’s Sexual Harassment Policy and Regulation are consistent with the law with respect to sexual harassment, the District did not adhere to its own policy in addressing the multiple forms of notice it received with regard to the treatment of the Student.

A 2009 national survey of middle and high school students found that nearly nine out of 10 gay, lesbian and bisexual students experienced harassment at school. Nearly two-thirds reportedly felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation.

Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union started an anti-bullying campaign in Walsh's honor. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, wrote a bill that would require all California schools to update their anti-harassment policies and inform students and parents on how to address incidents of bullying. Ammiano's legislation, called Seth's Law, recently passed the Senate Education Committee. About the bill, Ammiano recently said:

As a former teacher, I know how important it is for our students to feel safe at school. Each day throughout California, LGBT youth experience harassment. Seth’s Law will give schools the necessary tools to prevent any young person from being bullied, harassed or worse because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.

Filed under: K–12, Daily Report

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