In what the ACLU of Southern California calls a “sweeping” anti-bullying settlement, the US Departments of Justice and Education announced on Friday, July 1, that they reached a settlement agreement with the Tehachapi Unified School District in Tehachapi, California “to resolve an investigation into the harassment of a middle school student based on his nonconformity with gender stereotypes. Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 each prohibit harassment based on sex, including harassment based on nonconformity with gender stereotypes and sexual harassment.” According to the ACLU’s James Gilliam, this is the first enforcement of the DOJ’s guidelines set forth last year in a Dear Colleague letter warning that antigay bullying is considered “gender-based harassment” under current law.
The Department of Education received a complaint following the September 2010 suicide of Seth Walsh, 13, alleging that Walsh had been the victim “of severe and persistent peer-on-peer sex-based harassment while he was a student” at Jacobsen Middle School, according to a press release from the White House. The DOE launched an extensive investigation with the Department of Justice and found the allegations were true.
From the White House press release:
The investigation found that Walsh suffered sexual and gender-based harassment by his peers. The investigation also found that Walsh was targeted for harassment for more than two school years because of his nonconformity with gender stereotypes, including his predominantly female friendships and stereotypically feminine mannerisms, speech and clothing. The departments determined that the harassment, which included ongoing and escalating verbal, physical and sexual harassment by other students at school, was sufficiently severe, pervasive and persistent to interfere with his educational opportunities. Despite having notice of the harassment, the district did not adequately investigate or otherwise respond to it. Based on the evidence gathered in the investigation, the departments concluded that the school district violated Title IX and Title IV.
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.
“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. Seth’s story and others like it sadly demonstrate that a school’s failure to address and prevent harassment can have tragic consequences,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “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.”
“We know that if students aren’t safe, then students aren’t learning,” said Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali. “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.”
In their press release, the ACLU of Southern California, which just announced a new anti-bullying project named after Seth Walsh, said the settlement is “one of the first of its kind in the country, and perhaps the most comprehensive, under the DOE definition of gender stereotyping that includes sexual orientation.”
“The findings from the DOJ and the DOE send a clear message that protection of students in public schools is of paramount importance. When it comes to stopping harassment based on sexual orientation and gender perception, schools need to get it right or face the consequences,” said James Gilliam, Director of the Seth Walsh Project at the ACLU of Southern California. “Better harassment policies save lives and make a safer environment for all students. No student should feel threatened for being who they are.”
The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) also applauded the “landmark ruling” the forces the school district to revise its policies related to sexual or gender-based harassment and provide mandatory trainings on these types of harassment for all students, teachers, administrators and staff.
“This settlement is a huge and melancholy victory in the on-going fight for safe, supportive schools for all students, and the first closure of any kind in the cases that rocked the nation last fall,” said GLSEN Executive Director, Eliza Byard. “My heart goes out to the Walsh family and our thoughts are with them today, as this step forward for the students of Tehachapi has come at an unimaginable cost.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez and Assistant Secretary of Education Russlynn Ali and their teams are to be commended for doing everything in their power to reach a settlement to benefit future generations of Tehachapi students. The Departments of Education and Justice have provided a harrowing illustration of the kind of gender-based and homophobic harassment that Seth Walsh faced every day. The settlement also represents a hugely important directive to districts regarding the comprehensive approach necessary to make sure that no other students suffer as Seth did.”
The GLSEN press release notes that:
Research consistently demonstrates that comprehensive policies and the presence of supportive educators in the school environment – two outcomes of the terms of the Tehachapi settlement – are critical protective factors for LGBT students. GLSEN’s 2009 National School Climate Survey found that LGBT students whose schools had such supports in place were more likely to feel safe in school, to feel connected to their school communities, and to plan to graduate and go on to college. In the 2011-2012 school year, GLSEN will begin comprehensive, district-wide implementation work in twenty school districts funded by the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health to promote the increased presence of these protective factors, among others, in schools nationwide.
Last week, on June 22, the California Senate Education Committee passed AB 9, Seth’s Law named after Walsh – - by a vote of 7-2. According to Equality California, “Seth’s Law is designed to address the pervasive problem of school bullying by providing California schools with tools to create a safe school environment for all students.” The bill, authored by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), is co-sponsored by a coalition of LGBT organizations: EQCA, ACLU of California, National Center for Lesbian Rights, Gay-Straight Alliance Network, and The Trevor Project.
Wendy Walsh, Seth’s mother, testified in support of the bill: “I can’t bring my son back. But the California legislature can make a difference today to protect young people across our state just like Seth who are or are thought to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Schools need to take harassment and bullying seriously when parents or students tell them about it, and when they see it and hear it on the school campus.”
The White House press release notes that:
The enforcement of Title IV and Title IX are top priorities of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Additional information about the Civil Rights Division is available on its website at www.justice.gov/crt. Enforcement of Title IX is also a top priority of Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Additional information about the Office for Civil Rights is available on its website at www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/index.html.