On September 19th 2010, 13-year-old Seth Walsh died after being put on life support for 10 days following his attempt to commit suicide by hanging himself1. Seth was a teenager from Tehachapi, California who spent years being brutally tormented by his fellow classmates at Jacobsen Middle School. He was bullied on an “eye to eye, over the telephone, personal and over the internet” basis as a result of being openly gay—according to his mother2. Each year, over 3.2 million students in the United States are victims of bullying, and over 160,000 teens skip school every day because of said bullying3. A survey that was given to public school teachers around the country revealed that 1 in 4 teachers see nothing wrong with bullying, and only 4% of teachers will intervene upon witnessing bullying4. Gay and lesbian teens are two to three times more likely to commit suicide as teenagers when compared to teens that identify as heterosexual, and one fourth of all students from elementary through high school age admit to being bullied or harassed on school property because of their gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation5. The main reason that children are bullied in schools seems to be because of something about them that sets them apart from the status quo—and in Seth’s case his sexual orientation unfortunately caused him to be subjected to bullying, and he is included in the 9 out of 10 LGBT teens who report that they were bullied at school as a direct result of their sexual orientation6.
Seth’s Law—titled California Assembly Bill AB9–became effective under Governor Jerry Brown as of July 1, 2012 with the aims of reinforcing and expanding further the Safe Place to Learn Act in order to create a safer, more inclusive environment for California public schoolstudents7. Seth’s Law requires public schools in California to update existing anti-bullying policies with an emphasis put on protecting students who are bullied as a result of their sexual orientation—whether actual or perceived—as well as their gender identity, nationality, ethnicity and religion8. While the law was not enacted specifically with the intent of preventing suicide—by its aims to both support the victims of bullying and to reform and fix the behaviors of those who bully—it does hope to work toward combating scenarios in which teenagers feel like suicide is the only way to escape harassment and bullying. The law requires creations of policies that reflects the forms of bullying that are prohibited, as well as requiring that public schools create a specific process for receiving and pursuing complaints about bullying and mandating that school personnel intervene upon witnessing any forms of bullying that the law prohibits9. California school districts must also publicize said anti-bullying policies and complaint processes to the general public as well as posting copies of the policy to each school and educational office—such as staff lounges10.
Existing California law prohibited discrimination, harassment or bullying of students based on sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity or religion, and both the California Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act of 2000 and the Safe Place to Learn Act of 2007 required the monitoring of California school districts’ anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies11. However, while the existing laws in California did provide for a foundation surrounding protection of students from discrimination and harassment and bullying, they did not require that schools take steps to implement the laws, and did not effectively provide protection from the severe bullying and harassment that many students–including Seth—faced and continue to face at school. Seth’s law aims to end bullying in California public schools by providing discipline methods that teach students appropriate and respectful behavior, as well as helping bullies understand and take further responsibility for the harm they cause to their victims. While nobody spoke in opposition to the legislation of AB 9, the California State Finance Department initially did not recommend the implementation of the bill as a result of believing that the bill was too expensive and would hurt the state budget. The committee of Appropriations unanimously voted 9-0 to suspend the proposed bill in order to provide time for supporters to make the bill more feasible on an economic basis12. The bill was passed by September of 2011, by a vote 24-14 by the California Senate despite strong opposition by members of the Republican party on the grounds that the bills continued to be too expensive for the state budget despite the amendments that were made to lessen the bills economic impact. Republican support of AB 9 was not necessary for it to be passed because Democrats at the time held the majority within California state legislature, and the bill had no real controversy attached to it. When the bill was passed as a result of being voted out of senate, California Assembly Member Tom Ammiamo went on to state that “Seth’s Law will help schools protect students and prevent and respond to bullying before tragedy occurs13.”
While California school districts are given the responsibility and the power surrounding the law’s requirement for creating processes for both receiving and taking action on complaints of discrimination, harassment and bullying in schools, teachers and staff members at each individual public school are in charge of intervening upon witnessing acts of harassment and bullying. The school districts are also required to implement curriculum for school counselors, teachers and administrators that instructs and informs how to identify and how to stop discrimination and bullying. The Superintendent of Public Instruction is required to annually create a post on the California Department of Education surrounding the resources available within communities to students and students’ families who have been subjected to harassment or bullying at school14.
After Seth’s death in 2010, both the California Department of Education and the California Department of Justice reviewed his school—Jacobsen middle school—and concluded that both the school itself and the Tehachapi school district were negligent. Seth’s mother filed a lawsuit against the Tehachapi school district on July 5th 2011 seeking compensation for punitive damages and for medical expenses based on multiple distinct causes of action15. The first cause of action was Tehachapi’s failure to prevent the student on student harassment and the teacher on student harassment based on sex, gender, and sexual orientation, which violates the plaintiff’s rights under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. The second cause of action was the school district’s violation of the plaintiff’s own rights under both the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution through the termination of a familial and companionship-based relationship. The last cause of action involves both the district’s violation of the Sex Equity in Education Act within the California Education Code 221.5-231.5 as well as the plaintiff’s individual capacity for wrongful death under California law15. The Tehachapi United School District settled in 2014 after three years of litigation and awarded Wendy Walsh $750,00016.
While California previously enacted the California Safe Place to Learn Act located within California Education Code 234(b) which insures that “local education agencies continue to work to reduce discrimination, harassment, violence, intimidation and bullying,” Seth’s law amends the existing framework of the Safe Place to Learn Act found in Sections 234, 234.1, 234.2, and 234.3, while adding Section 234.5 in order to strengthen school’s anti-bullying policies17. While none of the additions nor the amendments to the Safe Place to Learn Act have been directly challenged since their creation in 2012, additions have been made to the code—including an amendment that makes it so “bullying, including bullying committed personally or by means of an electric art, which includes the posting of messages on a social media network or internet-related website” are also treated as a means of bullying and are therefore punishable18. Another amendment made in 2014 requires school districts to include lists of statewide resources available to youth who have been affected by gangs, gun violence, and psychological trauma caused by violence at school, home, or in the community19. When the code was first enacted, it required that students who were found to be bullies must undergo alternative methods of discipline such as counseling or anger management rather than being suspended from school—however that requirement was removed from the code20.
California school districts and each individual school are in charge of creating and adopting the required anti-bullying policies and the methods for receiving and investigating complaints surrounding bullying. The school district administration and staff members from each individual school are in charge of making sure that the policies are enforced. For example, if a staff member at a school sees a student being bullied, he or she is required by the law to intervene and report the bullying to school administration. School districts handle each instance of reported bullying, and they are given a narrow window of time to investigate and resolve the complaints21. According to interviews conducted by the LA Times–officials at the Downey, Norwalk-La Marida, and Paramount school districts in California reported that they were unaware of Seth’s law and the law’s mandate that requires schools to update their policies surrounding bullying and harassment22.
Brian Jacobs, the Superintendent of the Bellflower Unified School District in California refused to comment about why the school district had failed to comply with the newly updated requirements that were laid out by Seth’s Law when he too was interviewed by the LA Times 23. I emailed Stephanie Papas, who is a school consultant with the California Department of Education. I asked her why she thinks that schools and unaware of the law and its policy changes, and she responded by saying that failing to comply with Seth’s law is completely unacceptable. Papas also said that she does not believe that schools are unaware of the law as the California Department of Education purposely sends out memos to schools notifying them of the requirement to adapt and enforce the provisions found in the law. I also went to the high school that I attended—Dougherty Valley High School—where I interviewed two teachers. Both teachers, Karie Chamberlain and Michelle Wilson, said that they knew of the school’s zero tolerance for bullying and had instances where they intervened when they witnessed bullying, but neither of the teachers knew about Seth’s Law24. However, when the LA Times asked the spokesman of Long Beach Unified School District, Chris Eftychiou about Seth’s Law he responded by stating that “the school district, through various school board policies, programs and curriculum, takes a firm stand against harassment or bullying of students for any reason24.”
The levels of enforcement of Seth’s law appear to differ drastically not only in terms of by school district, but by each individual school. Some school districts in California appear to ignore the law as a result of not implementing the requirements that the law creates—as reflected by the interviews conducted by the LA Times. My high school has policies in place to attempt to prevent bullying and harassment, however school officials are unaware that those policies have been shaped by Seth’s law.
Seth’s Law is effective in its ability to give California schools the resources they need to reform their policies and to create strategies for preventing and dealing with bullying and harassment based on gender, sexuality, and ethnicity. However, the law does not adequately hold schools accountable for implementing and following the provisions it sets. While the law requires school staff and administration to intervene when they witness bullying, there are no real consequences that the schools will face if they do not. The California Department of Education sending out notices to schools reminding them of Seth’s Law and the schools’ requirement to abide by its provisions does not seem like an effective way to ensure that schools are following through with the provisions.
While Seth’s law is a step in the right direction, the bill does not do enough to prevent pervasive bullying, and several reforms are necessary in order to make sure the law is enforced. The Department of Education should implement randomized visitations to schools to make sure that the schools are adhering to the policies that the law requires. If the Department of Education finds that the schools are not, the department should send officials to help educate and train the schools to help better their policies and ways of dealing with bullying and harassment. I do not recommend any sort of economic sanction being placed on our public schools since they already struggle with a lack of general funding. Rather, the Department of Education should focus on educating and informing school districts about Seth’s Law. After educating and working with the schools, the Department of Education should perform yearly inspections to make sure that the schools continue to implement the policies that are required of them through Seth’s Law. While Seth’s law is not perfect, the legislation is progress in creating a safer environment for students by preventing the type of bullying that Seth Walsh had to endure when he was pushed, ridiculed, and bullied in practically every way imaginable because of his sexual orientation.
AB 9: Seth’s Law. (n.d.). Retrieved September 22, 2016, from https://www.aclunc.org/sites/default/files/asset_upload_file529_10688_0.pdf
Alexander, B. The Bullying of Seth Walsh: Requiem for a small-town boy. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2023083,00.html
Ammiano, T. (n.d.). Seth’s Law Fact Sheet. Retrieved September 22, 2016, from http://www.nclrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/AB_9_Fact_Sheet__2_.pdf
Cohn, Andrea, and Andrea Canter, Ph.D. “Bullying: Facts for Schools and Parents.” NASP Fact Sheet. Retrieved from http://www.nasponline.org/resources/factsheets/bullying_fs.aspx
Gay Bullying Statistics. Retrieved from http://www.bullyingstatistics.org/content/gay-bullying-statistics.html
Huff, K. O. (2013). An Analysis of California Anti-Bullying Policy Evolution. Retrieved from http://scholarworks.calstate.edu/bitstream/handle/10211.3/52694/Huff Thesis~.pdf?sequence=1
Rouse, S. M. (n.d.). Latinos in the legislative process: Interests and influence.
- Chamberlain and M. Wilson, personal communication, October 26, 2016.
Seth’s Law (AB9) Handout | ACLU of Southern California (2011). Retrieved from https://www.aclusocal.org/seths-law-ab9-handout/
Wendy Walsh vs Tehachapi Unified School District. (2011). Retrieved from https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/216013/28452777.pdf
Writer, P. Z. (2012). Most local school districts ignore state’s anti-gay bullying law – First of two parts. Retrieved from http://www.dailynews.com/article/zz/20120825/NEWS/120829089