Posted by: Catherine Lugg | July 9, 2011

DOJ, DOE and the Death of Seth Walsh

In September of 2010, Seth Walsh hanged himself after experiencing severe and persistent gender and sexual orientation-based bullying in his Tehachapi public school (Jacobson Middle School). Both the US Department of Justice and the US Department of Education investigated. As their fact-finding report noted:

…the harassment the Student was experiencing became unbearable for him beginning in seventh grade. As described by the Student’s friends and classmates, throughout his attendance at the School, but particularly in seventh grade, his peers routinely called him hostile and demeaning names related to his nonconformity with gender stereotypes and sexual orientation, including “sissy,” “girl,” and vulgar references to female anatomy; insults meant to question his masculinity, including mocking his clothing as “girly,” asking him, “do you sit down” to use the
restroom, suggesting he should “get surgery” to become a female, and referring to him as the “girlfriend” of other male students; and anti-gay slurs and epithets.

Students also relayed language of a hostile and demeaning sexual nature, including derogatory remarks related to sex between men and crude questions about sexual acts and behavior in which they suggested the Student had engaged. The Student also was reportedly teased for being attracted to another boy at school. One student recalled a male classmate asking the Student out on a date as a joke. Others said that students spread hostile and patently false sexual rumors about the Student.

Many students also described physical harassment of the Student. This included bumping the Student out of the way as he walked by; hitting items such as food out of his hands; obstructing his path as he tried to walk by; throwing food, water bottles, pencils, and erasers at him; shoving him; and subjecting him to unwanted physical conduct of a sexual nature. This physical conduct was often accompanied by verbal comments such as those cited above. For example, witnesses described students grabbing the Student from behind while suggesting that he would be sexually gratified by the contact. On one occasion, a student attempted to shove a pencil up the seat of the Student’s pants.

As described by his friends, the Student suffered this conduct on school grounds on a daily basis, typically during lunch period, breaks, passing periods, P.E. class, and after school. Multiple students said that harassment often occurred in an area behind the snack bar in the School’s cafeteria. Friends described the Student’s avoidance of certain areas of campus where harassment tended to occur, and one friend said that she and the Student would frequently roam the empty hallways during breaks, a time when other students were socializing, and take other measures to avoid harassment.

Another friend said that the Student often went to the library during breaks for the same purpose. Students indicated that harassment of the Student was widespread and perpetrated by dozens of individuals, and that students belonging to certain campus cliques were particularly likely to engage in the conduct.

…One friend said that, during the first month of his eighth-grade year, the Student told her that he did not want to live in Tehachapi anymore because nothing ever got better. An undated note written by the Student reads, in part, “I want to live elsewhere…I feel like utter failure. School, I’m terrified to go to. I was going to leave…but I don’t have money, food, or support. So, I’m staying here.”

On September 19, 2010, shortly after the Student began independent study the second time, he and a female friend had an encounter at the local park with a student from the School and three students from the District’s high school. According to police records from the incident, the Student was threatened, taunted, followed, and physically assaulted. That afternoon, the Student hanged himself from a tree in his backyard. He was discovered and cut down by his mother and his younger brother. After being in a coma for over a week, the Student died on September 27, 2010.

I urge you to read the entire 20-page report.

The Tehachapi Unifed School District has reached a settlement with the US Department of Justice over the pervasive and severe harassment of Seth Walsh. According to the DOJ’s website:

Under the terms of the resolution agreement, the district will take a variety of steps to prevent sexual and gender-based harassment at all of its schools, to respond appropriately to harassment that occurs and to eliminate the hostile environment resulting from harassment. The district has agreed to revise its policies and regulations related to sexual and gender-based harassment and to retain a consultant to provide mandatory trainings on sexual and gender-based harassment for all students, administrators, teachers, counselors and other staff who interact with students. In addition, the district will 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

Given the detail of the report, I’m not surprised that the district settled. The district personnel DID violate Walsh’s Civil Rights. While this is a win for the queer kids who are still in the district, it doesn’t ease the pain of Walsh’s death. He *was* bullied unto death because he was a queer, gender non-conforming young man. Here’s hoping the dying stops….

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