SAN FRANCISCO — Federal education officials are investigating a school district in a Central California town where a 13-year-old boy committed suicide after allegedly being harassed by classmates because he was gay, a spokesman for Education Secretary Arne Duncan confirmed Tuesday.
The probe was launched in response to a complaint from Seth Walsh's mother that Tehachapi Unified School District employees failed to adequately address the years of bullying that preceded her son's death last Sept. 28, spokesman Justin Hamilton said.
Seth's mother Wendy Walsh said U.S. Department of Education investigators spent two days in Tehachapi last week interviewing students, teachers and administrators. She said she contacted them when her son, who hanged himself from a backyard tree on Sept. 19, was still hospitalized in a coma.
"They put this on their very important list, their priority list," Walsh said of the federal review. "Obviously, there must be a big problem that needs to be addressed, and it isn't just around Seth. It's the whole nation."
District Superintendent Richard Swanson and other officials were not available for comment since the district is closed for the holiday break. Swanson did not respond to an e-mail sent to his work address.
He told The Bakersfield Californian last week that since Seth took his life, the 1,100-student district has formed an anti-bullying task force and adopted a bullying prevention program that deals with the topic generally but does not discuss harassment based on sexual orientation in detail.
Seth was one of at least seven gay teenagers whose suicides this fall – all occurring within a month – focused renewed attention on the pain inflicted by peers who mock other children because of their sexual orientations.
In late October, the Education Department's civil rights division responded by reminding school districts and universities they could face administrative penalties and even lose federal funding if they fail to take concrete steps to counter anti-gay harassment about which they knew or "reasonably should have known."
The guidance also clarified that even though federal civil rights laws do not cover sexual orientation, the department has authority to investigate cases so severe that school has become a "hostile environment" for students perceived to be gay, lesbian or transgender.
The investigations can be done under laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender stereotypes, Hamilton said.
"What we found anecdotally was harassment of gay, lesbian and transgender students was often not referred to the Office for Civil Rights on the assumption of, if they are gay, there are no civil rights violations," he said. "While they are not protected as a group, oftentimes the type of bullying they experience is protected. So what we are saying is, harassing someone for failing to conform to gender norms is sexual harassment."
Wendy Welsh is claiming school officials in Tehachapi neglected to take action to protect Seth and to address anti-gay bias in general, even though she and the boy's grandmother, a former school board member, alerted them several times that he was called anti-gay epithets and threatened in the boys locker room.
He attended Jacobsen Middle School in Tehachapi, but twice was given permission to be homeschooled because of the ongoing problems, according to a letter the American Civil Liberties Union sent to the superintendent last week on Wendy Walsh's behalf.
The ACLU is demanding to know what steps the district has taken to address bullying of gay students.
California state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, has introduced a bill requiring public schools to include lessons on gay history and the contributions of prominent gays and lesbians as a way to combat bullying.