A Central California school district did not adequately investigate or respond to complaints of bullying endured by a 13-year-old boy who later committed suicide after being harassed by classmates because he was gay, federal officials said in a letter to administrators released Friday.
Federal education and justice department officials told the Tehachapi Unified School District that school officials failed in their legal duty to protect Seth Walsh from "persistent, pervasive and often severe sex-based harassment" at Jacobsen Middle School.
Seth hung himself from a tree in his backyard two weeks after starting eighth-grade year last September and died eight days later.
The government officials launched their investigation based on a civil-rights complaint filed by Seth's mother, Wendy Walsh. They reached their conclusion after interviewing teachers, administrators and more than 75 students.
Their report provided a detailed account of a sensitive boy who, for more than two years, was teased for looking like a girl, inappropriately touched, had food and water bottles thrown at him, became the subject of false sexual rumors and eventually stopped changing into his gym clothes because he felt threatened in the locker room.
"These sexual and gender-based acts of verbal and physical aggression, intimidation, and hostility directed toward the student_particularly in light of their cruel, relentless, and inescapable nature, in conjunction with the student's young and vulnerable age_were clearly sufficient to create a hostile environment that limited the student's ability to participate in and benefit from the school's education program," the investigators wrote.
Although the school disciplined at least one student who used an anti-gay slur against Seth, the federal investigators found several instances in which complaints brought to Jacobsen's principal or vice-principal by the boy or his mother went unanswered or were handled ineffectively, even though many adults knew that Seth was picked on.
The vice-principal, for example, told Walsh "that, in a perfect word, the student would be treated equally, but that the students were at a difficult age and he could not change attitudes originating in the students' homes."
On another occasion, the principal gave Seth a yearbook to identify the boys who had been taunting him, but let the matter drop because the boy could not name any of his alleged harassers.
"When administrators should have been actively communicating to students the importance of treating the student with respect and of intervening on his behalf when others did not do so, they instead engaged in passive, incomplete action or inaction, creating for some students the perception that the harassment was acceptable," the justice and education officials said.
To settle the case, the school district has agreed to be subjected to several years of monitoring on its anti-harassment efforts and to train school staff on how to properly handle complaints even though it disputed the government's findings, according to the report.
Superintendent Richard Swanson said in an interview that he looked forward to implementing the changes outlined in the district's agreement with the Department of Education's civil rights division, such as adopting lessons to combat bullying and conducting regular surveys on school environment.
"The conclusions are devastating really," Swanson said. "Things get by us, there are things we need to do to respond and to change, and I think we have the chance to be exemplary. We can either be resistant or stick our head in the sand, or we can move forward."
James Gilliam, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who represented Walsh in the complaint, said he was ecstatic the federal officials had confirmed that the school had abandoned its responsibility to Seth.
"Every school in the country now has notice they have to protect these children," Gilliam said. "But I also know it sends a message to everybody in Tehachapi."
Seth's case represented one of the first times that the U.S. Department of Education had applied federal laws designed to protect girls from gender harassment to a situation involving a student's sexual orientation, a change Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced in October.