SETH’S LEGACY: Tehachapi teen’s suicide launches national, local anti-bullying fights
| Saturday, Feb 04 2012 08:00 PM
Last Updated Saturday, Feb 04 2012 08:00 PM
A TIMELINE: TEHACHAPI, BULLYING SETH
Sept. 27, 2010
: Seth Walsh dies following a suicide attempt days earlier. In a suicide note, he tells mother Wendy Walsh to “make sure to make the school feel like (expletive) for bringing you this sorrow.”
Oct. 28, 2010
: U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights receives a complaint from Wendy Walsh alleging Tehachapi Unified failed to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment. An investigation soon ensues.
June 16, 2011
: The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California launches the Seth Walsh Students’ Rights Project, aimed at combating bullying and discrimination in schools, particularly against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning students.
June 30, 2011
: Office for Civil Rights concludes the district violated federal prohibitions against sex-based harassment, that Walsh suffered sexual and gender-based harassment, and the district knew of the bullying but did not adequately investigate or respond to it.
The district signs a “resolution agreement” specifying how the district can right its wrongs.
July 5, 2011
: Wendy Walsh sues Tehachapi Unified seeking compensation for wrongful-death damages, medical expenses and punitive damages.
Oct. 10, 2011
: Gov. Jerry Brown signs Seth’s Law, requiring all school districts to institute anti-harassment policies with shorter timelines for investigating bullying claims.
Sept. 13-14, 2011
: Tehachapi Unified begins staff training on bullying and harassment.
: Seth’s Law takes effect.
July 9, 2013
: Trial is scheduled to start for Walsh’s wrongful-death case.
July 1, 2016
: Agreement between district and the federal government finishes upon full compliance.
Jacobsen Middle School 8th graders Lyndie Rhodes, left, and Tori Prescott say bullying continues at their school in Tehachapi.
Interim Superintendent of Tehachapi Unified School District, Lisa Gilbert, says they have started to implement changes to address bullying issues at the schools.
After a recent unannounced visit to the Tehachapi Unified School District schools, JoEtta Gonzales, director of Equity Assistance Center at Arizona State University, said she is pleased with what she has observed in the way students relate to each other and staff.
Seth Walsh, right, shown in this family photo with his brother Shawn, was 13 when he hung himself after being teased in a local park during a time when he was searching for his sexual identity.
When 13-year-old Seth Walsh of Tehachapi hanged himself in 2010 after being bullied at school for being gay, a national anti-bullying movement followed.
Parents filed lawsuits. Advocates started local, state and national anti-bullying projects. States passed laws making schools more accountable for addressing bullying, including a California one named after Seth.
But perhaps nowhere are anti-bullying changes more prominent than at Seth’s hometown and former school district, Tehachapi Unified.
This school year, the district — to comply with federal mandates — has revised harassment and investigative policies, trained staff and students to be more sensitive to bullying, and created a new bullying investigation and tracking system, according to new district reports obtained by The Californian.
The records, the first of periodic reports Tehachapi Unified must file with the federal government, show gender-based harassment persists, but officials are acting.
This semester, the district will survey students and staff on the new school atmosphere and develop plans to teach students about bullying and sex-based harassment, building healthy friendships and promoting diversity.
There have been roadblocks, however, including leadership changes and funding cuts. And there are people who continue to believe Tehachapi will never change — that it’ll just do what the feds insist.
School officials disagree.
“We have embraced these steps, and we’re not just wanting to check off items from a checklist,” interim Superintendent Lisa Gilbert said. “We’re wanting to grow. We’re doing this all for the right reasons.”
Wendy Walsh, Seth’s mother and now a vocal advocate for anti-bullying efforts nationally, declined to be part of this report while her wrongful-death lawsuit against the district is ongoing. But she said change is needed.
“I truly hope that changes are taking place (in Tehachapi) because losing a child is the worse thing that can ever happen to a family,” Walsh said.
A LOOK BACK
A month after Seth’s death, the U.S. Department of Education sent a “Dear Colleague Letter” to 15,000 schools and districts clarifying their roles in preventing and responding to bullying. It was the federal government’s first crafting of a comprehensive guidance plan on bullying for schools and presentation of it in such an up-front manner.
Soon after, the department’s Office of Civil Rights began investigating Tehachapi Unified’s handling of Seth’s case,
Walsh hanged himself from a tree in his backyard in September 2010, immediately following a bullying incident. In the years after he “came out” in sixth grade, he was ridiculed, harassed and physically attacked by students, especially in locker rooms. His grades plummeted and his mother pulled him out to be homeschooled.
Wendy Walsh claimed Jacobsen Middle School officials neglected to protect Seth and address anti-gay bias in general. School officials maintained staff was caring, and dealt with reported incidents.
Seth was one of at least seven gay teenagers whose suicides occurred throughout the country within that month. Renewed attention on bullying, particularly due of sexual orientations, followed.
Locally, demand for answers and changes was most vocal in Tehachapi.
“The issue was on everybody’s mind,” said Mary Schoenfeldt, public education coordinator for Everett Office of Emergency Management in Washington state. Schoenfeldt trains school employees, including local ones, on suicide intervention and crisis management, and has responded to such high-profile cases as the Columbine killings. “Seth Walsh got all of the attention and all of the emotion that we were all feeling.”
People needed someone to blame, she said, which is typical during a crisis. School officials received threats. And the American Civil Liberties Union wanted answers.
“It was a chaotic and tragic time in Tehachapi,” Schoenfeldt said. “They were under a great deal of pressure. But good things come out of tremendous circumstances.”
Schoenfeldt and the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office racheted up counseling, suicide intervention and safe schools trainings. The sessions filled quickly, even necessitating waiting lists.
Tehachapi residents and other concerned parents formed the Tehachapi Anti Bullying Coalition. The state legislature introduced Seth’s Law to protect other gay students from repeated bullying in school. And the ACLU launched the Seth Walsh Students’ Rights Project, aimed at combating bullying and discrimination in schools.
In July, the seven-month federal investigation concluded that the school district failed Seth when it did not “adequately investigate or respond appropriately” to the harassment. Days later, Wendy Walsh filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Tehachapi Unified.
District officials disputed the federal findings but agreed to do a slew of things to prevent sexual- and gender-based harassment at all of its schools.
Until at least 2016, Tehachapi Unified — a six-campus, 4,700-student district — must follow a strict timeline in addressing issues, and update the federal government bi-annually on its progress.
Those first records show that since the start of the year, the district has:
* Revised and created policies on discrimination, complaint procedures and harassment.
* Created a system to track bullying and harassment cases, as well as the investigation process.
* Trained each of its 500 employees on handling harassment and bullying, including their responsibilities under federal law. Forty staffers took part in a more intensive training on tolerance.
* Started a Safe and Inclusive Task Force — made up of school administrators, teachers, classified staff, parents, community members and students — and a district curriculum committee to review new “age-appropriate” curriculum on safe schools as it relates to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, diversity and sex-based harassment.
That includes eliminating stereotypical thinking: there are no girl colors or boy colors, for example.
* Increased security on campuses and supervision in locker rooms, and now provides alternative changing spaces for students concerned about harassment.
* Informed parents of changes and its “aggressive and highly visible campaign to help ensure that our students and staff know that bullying and harassment is not, will not be, accepted.”
The feds mandated that the district hire consultants from Equity Alliance at Arizona State University, at no cost to the district, to guide training and other efforts.
The district’s handling of harassment complaints differed from campus to campus and needed to be made uniform, said Equity Project Director JoEtta Gonzales. The people of Tehachapi were willing to do the work, she said.
“It could have been ugly. They could have felt resentful,” Gonzales said. “But they had open minds and hearts.”
The Office for Civil Rights declined to answer questions about how well the district is complying with the agreement. Education Department spokesman Jim Bradshaw said the office “continues to work with the district as it monitors the implementation of the settlement agreement reached between the district and the departments of Education and Justice to ensure the full implementation of the agreement.”
Parents, during an informational meeting attended by dozens at the start of the school year, were skeptical of the upcoming changes at their schools. They asked district officials why kids were being punished for using the word “gay,” why parents of bullies weren’t targeted, and if the district was being “reactive not proactive,” the records show.
One asked, “Have we gone overboard?” and, “Should we just focus on math, reading?” Another asked if there was a “hidden agenda behind new curriculum.”
Tamara Schultz, a parent on the new task force, said harassment happens still, many parents aren’t fully aware of the big problem, and the school system may not be equipped to handle it all.
“I think the school is so far behind,” she said. “All of this is new to them.”
Students, too, have been skeptical. They’re learning more about how bullying is wrong and what to do about it, Jacobsen eighth grader Lyndie Rhodes said, but bullying persists.
“They can maybe stop it a little, but they can’t stop it 24/7,” she said.
Zoyinar Means, a grandmother of a Jacobsen student, said students have no respect for rules and will continue to bully. Still, she said, it “doesn’t hurt to try.”
Others are more optimistic.
Tamar Asatryan, another parent on the task force, said every child should feel safe at school, and the district is doing what it can to make campuses safe environments.
“I believe they are on the right path,” she said. “But it takes more than schools to build a future. Students need to learn it at home, too.”
The district won’t have an easy time moving forward — it could be stuck paying thousands of dollars to implement changes that were supposed to be free.
That’s because the U.S. Department of Education shifted funding from consultants to WestEd, an education research and development agency. WestEd did not have the capacity or expertise on bullying and gender-based harassment to assist the district, Gonzales said.
Now the district must pay for Equity’s assistance, which was not in Tehachapi Unified’s budget, Gilbert said. The board recently approved a two-month contract with Equity for $7,500 to help prepare curriculum and trainings.
“I don’t know what the future holds,” said interim Superintendent Gilbert, who replaced Richard Swanson after his resignation in October. “But our staff has risen to the challenge and are making the positive changes in our schools and classrooms, and we are focused on doing all that we can to help our students feel respected and safe.”
In coming weeks and months, Tehachapi Unified will begin surveying students and staff on the “climate” of campuses, continue trainings and analyze curriculum. Officials will begin developing a program to assess the effectiveness of its anti-harassment efforts. And it’s still determining what action, if any, to take against staff members involved in the Walsh case, the records show.
Meanwhile, other area school districts now know they must address bullying concerns, said Daryl Thiesen, a prevention programs coordinator for KCSOS’ School-Community Partnerships.
Bakersfield City School District — the largest K-8 district in California — recently began reviewing bullying policies. Fairfax School District started an anti-bullying campaign and Taft schools recently observed an anti-bullying week.
Seth’s Law takes effect in July, and school officials are meeting on how to comply.
“We’re all taking this very seriously,” Thiesen said. “Bullying is not accepted here. That’s the direction all schools are going.”