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ACLU/SC’s New Seth Walsh Project to Enforce Anti-Bullying Laws in Schools

ACLU/SC’s New Seth Walsh Project to Enforce Anti-Bullying Laws in Schools

by Karen Ocamb on July 27, 2011

ACLU/SC's James Gilliam (Photo courtesy ACLU)

This story is cross-posted from Frontiers In LA.

The murder trial of Brandon McInerney currently underway in Chatsworth, California, has revealed terrifying details of how teachers and school administrators failed to protect 15-year-old Larry King from being shot execution-style by then-14-year-old McInerney in their E.O. Green School classroom in 2008.

The prosecution argued in detail that McInerney was a budding White Supremacist who killed King because the makeup-wearing effeminate teen was gay. The defense appears to be using a “gay panic” defense, arguing that McInerney shot King because he could no longer tolerate King’s flirtations and “sexual harassment.” Both sides noted the school’s codebook referring to sexual orientation and sexual harassment and blamed school administrators and teachers for not intervening sooner. School teachers said they didn’t take warnings seriously and officials claim they followed the law.

Then, on July 11, the boys’ teacher Dawn Boldrin testified, saying, “I know for a fact that the school has done nothing to make the classroom safer for anyone. They have not done anything to prevent this from happening again.”

James Gilliam, Deputy Executive Director of the ACLU of Southern California, said no one called the ACLU to ask for help. If they had, there would have been an investigation, negotiations and education on how to create a safer school environment.

That’s the idea behind the newly established Seth Walsh Project. Gilliam announced the project at the ACLU/SC’s luncheon on June 16 honoring Dan Savage and his “It Gets Better” project, which aims to prevent LGBT and questioning teens from committing suicide as a result of bullying. Savage said that a portion of the contributions raised by the “It Gets Better” project will now go to the ACLU/SC to serve as a “hammer” when schools fail to enforce anti-bullying laws.

Dan Savage, Chaz Bono and James Gilliam (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

The Seth Walsh Students’ Rights Project is also funded by the David Bohnett Foundation, Gilliam told Frontiers.

The project was conceived after the suicide of 13-year-old Seth Walsh last September. Walsh was in the eighth grade at Tehachapi’s Jacobsen Middle School and had suffered intense anti-gay bullying and gender-based harassment since coming out as gay in the sixth grade.

“Wendy Walsh contacted us after her son committed suicide,” Gilliam said. “In the suicide note Seth left her, one of the things it said was, ‘Make sure you make the school feel like shit for bringing you this sorrow.’ And so she asked us what could be done with the school district.”

Seth Walsh's mother and brother, Wendy and Shawn Walsh (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

With this request for help from a parent, the ACLU/SC interviewed Walsh’s friends and others who could shed light on the teen’s suicide and concluded that “he had been subjected to several years of pretty tragic bullying and harassment that the school had failed to do anything about.”

Gilliam sent a demand letter to the school summarizing their findings and pointed out the number of potential laws they were violating by not protecting Walsh. “It was too late for Seth, but what we did in that letter was urge them to immediately adopt some different steps that could help change the environment in the school district,” Gilliam said. “We wanted to make sure the teachers and staff knew they had an obligation to remedy this type of behavior when they see it, and that they can’t turn a blind eye. … The laws are on the books, but the schools are not actually carrying out their duties to protect these students.”

The Seth Walsh Project is intended to step in when someone sees an unchecked problem with bullying and harassment of anyone, LGBT or straight. But the ACLU/SC must essentially be invited in. Someone—a student, teacher, staff member (especially janitors and cafeteria workers) can anonymously contact the ACLU/SC and ask for help. Gilliam’s team will then conduct an investigation to verify the allegations, and if violations are found, will initiate a process that starts with a demand letter—but could end with a threat to be sued by the ACLU.

“If we need to file a lawsuit, we’ve got great impact litigators who will do that,” said Gilliam, who was personally bullied as a youth. “I don’t know of a lawsuit filed against a school district that has not settled favorably or been ended favorably by a court—and we’re talking settlements in the range from $40,000 to a little over one million dollars. So there’s the real threat.”

On July 1, Gilliam and The Seth Walsh Project got a bigger hammer. After an investigation, the U.S. Justice Department and Department of Education reached what Gilliam calls “a significant settlement” with the Tehachapi Unified School District confirming the teen’s harassment “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 a DOJ/DOE press release.

The comprehensive settlement agreement mandates that the school district implement a series of specific policies, procedures and training to better protect students in their care.

“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,” Gilliam said. “Better harassment policies save lives and make a safer environment for all students. No student should feel threatened for being who they are.”

The Seth Walsh Project contact info can be found at aclu-sc.org. Hotline: (213) 977-5251; Fax: (213) 417-2251; Email: sethwalshproject@aclu-sc.org  Here’s a video of Wendy Walsh reading Seth’s letter and describing what happened to him:



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GLAAD is Back!-Videos
July 12, 2012 at 5:41 PM
Hey, California Schools – We’ve Got Big News! Seth’s Law is in Effect
July 17, 2012 at 5:31 PM

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