A photo of bullying victim Seth Walsh is held by his mother, Wendy.
photo by Casey Christiel/The Bakersfield Californian/Zuma
After years of being taunted and bullied by classmates, culminating in a physical assault at a local park, 13-year-old Seth Walsh came home and asked his mother if he could borrow a pen. With it, he wrote a final note to her and his three siblings: "Make sure to make the school feel like shit for bringing you this sorrow. This life was a pleasure, mostly having you guys to pull me through the pain."
Wendy Walsh found her son a short time later, unconscious, hanging from the branch of a plum tree in the backyard. Airlifted to a local hospital, he languished on life support and died nine days later.
Within a month, Walsh followed her son's wish to shame the school by filing complaints with both the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education. After an eight-month investigation, officials found that Seth Walsh had been subjected to "persistent, pervasive, and often severe sex-based harassment" and concluded that the school district's failure to investigate or respond constituted "deliberate indifference."
Those findings helped bring about AB 9, also known as Seth's Law or the Safe Place to Learn Act, signed into law in October. Effective July 1, 2012, it requires California school districts to specifically address harassment based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression in their antidiscrimination policies. The policies must be posted in schools and publicized - along with complaint procedures - to pupils, parents, employees, school officials, and the public. (See Cal. Educ. Code § 234-234.5.)
Seth, a slight boy with dyed and styled hair, dressed differently than most of the boys in Kern County's Jacobsen Middle School - favoring scarves, pedal pushers, and Hello Kitty backpacks. Wendy Walsh says her son started getting teased in fifth grade with other students calling him "gay," "homo," and "fag," and that escalated after he came out to friends and family the next year. His peers began to harass him physically, too - throwing food and other objects at him, grabbing his genitals, once attempting to shove a pencil up his pants.
The government's findings of sex-based harassment also provided the cornerstone for a wrongful death lawsuit alleging various constitutional violations filed July 5 against school officials and several teachers (Walsh v. Tehachapi Unified Sch. Dist.
, No. S-1500-CV-274049 (Kern Cnty. Super. Ct.)).
The complaint alleges that some school administrators and teachers saw and heard what was happening but did nothing to stop it. It claims several teachers named as defendants even participated - one telling a student she wanted to ask Seth what was "wrong" with him, and another calling him "fruity" in front of the whole class.
Wendy Walsh says that when the bad behavior continued, she complained to Jacobsen Middle School's vice principal and later to its principal, telling them she would press criminal charges if the harassment didn't stop. It didn't. After Seth's grades dropped from As and Bs to Ds and mostly Fs, administrators allowed him to be home schooled; the authorizing paperwork they signed cited "sexual orientation ridicule" as the reason.
"A claim that somebody said a gay slur against Seth as he walked down the hall, there's not a lot you can do about that in a school of 1,000 kids or so," says Bakersfield attorney Michael Kellar, who represents Tehachapi Unified School District in the action. "The school district took reasonable steps to investigate all claimed incidents of harassment when information was provided."
The case was recently removed to federal court (Walsh v. Tehachapi Unified Sch. Dist.
, No. 11-CV-1489 (E.D. Cal.). "That means there will be a huge time delay - the case won't likely get heard for three or four years," says Walsh's attorney Daniel Rodriguez, also of Bakersfield.
"When you look at this case, you can't help but come away thinking how terribly sad it was for Seth - for the torment a 13-year-old boy was going through. I would like to think there were people in positions of authority and trust whose heartstrings were tugged. But they didn't do anything. Now we want a jury to look them in the eye and say they have to pay."