By Elizabeth Gill, Staff Attorney, ACLU LGBT Project and the ACLU of Northern California
Seth Walsh was a sweet, intelligent boy who loved his family and did well in school. He was also gay. And for this, he endured years of relentless bullying and verbal abuse at his Tehachapi, California, school. On September 19, 2010, Seth Walsh hanged himself from a plum tree in the family’s backyard. He was on life support for nine days before he died on September 28. He was only 13 years old.
Wendy Walsh, Seth’s mother, teamed up with the ACLU to help make a difference in the lives of LGBT youth facing harassment. "Schools need to take harassment and bullying seriously when parents or students tell them about it, and when they see it in the halls," she told the ACLU.
Seth’s mother is speaking out publicly to tell her son’s story.
Seth was in fifth grade when students started calling him "gay." As he got older, the verbal abuse and taunts were more frequent and severe. Seth’s family and close friends report that by seventh grade other students constantly called him "queer" and "fag." He was afraid to use the restroom or be in the boy’s locker room before gym class. One student reported that a teacher called Seth "fruity" in front of an entire class. Seth’s mother told the ACLU that her pleas for help to the school were often brushed aside. Seth’s grades eventually dropped from A’s and B’s to failing as the harassment continued. Friends say that he became depressed and withdrawn.
Seth’s story is heartbreakingly common. Verbal and physical abuse at school isolates and degrades lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students. Recent studies from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and in the Journal of Adolescent Health confirm what we know about the serious harassment and safety fears that LGBT youth face. A tragic result of these factors is that LGBT youth are three times as likely to commit suicide as heterosexual youth.
Wendy Walsh is on a mission to change these statistics. Schools, too, can make a big difference. In fact, public schools have a duty to protect students from harassment based on sexual orientation. According to the 2009 School Climate Survey from our colleagues at GLSEN, California and 14 other states require that schools take specific steps to protect LGBT students. Federal legislation – the Student Non-Discrimination Act – is expected to come up early next year and would extend additional protections for LGBT students nationwide. Even when good laws are in place, schools often need tools to adequately protect LGBT students.
At the very least, schools should be taking these five steps to make a safer climate for LGBT students:
- Create strong and clear anti-harassment policies and programs.
- Take all complaints of harassment seriously.
- Provide ongoing professional development for teachers, school counselors and administrators about identifying and stopping anti-LGBT harassment.
- Hold regular programs that explain the harmful impact of harassment to students and staff, and include LGBT topics and history in basic curricula.
- Support Gay-Straight Alliances on campus.
Wendy Walsh’s message is clear: Students have the right to be safe and supported at school for exactly who they are. And parents deserve to know that their kids are going to school in a respectful environment where they are nurtured to reach their full potential. I think we can all agree on that.