Wendy Walsh did everything she could to protect her son, but in the end, the bullying was too much for 13-year-old Seth.
“It started really in second grade, when people realized he was different,” said Walsh, of Tehachapi, a small town near Bakersfield. “He had effeminate characteristics; he wasn’t into sports. When he was in fifth grade he came to me and said, ‘Mom, everyone’s calling me gay.’”
Walsh asked Seth’s teacher and principal to intervene, but the bullying only got worse in sixth grade, when Seth came out as gay. Other children hurled insults and objects, and Seth felt that he had no friends.
“When the school didn’t address the bullying, I did feel like my hands were tied,” Walsh said in an interview.
After Seth took his own life last fall, Walsh began working to prevent other families from having to endure the same tragedy. Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Seth’s Law, which will require school districts across California to write antibully policies that specifically mention gay and transgender students. The new law also requires school officials to investigate and intervene when students report harassment.
“This really embraces the whole arena of bullying, and for years public schools have turned a deaf ear to the taunts,” the law’s sponsor, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, said at a news conference Monday.
Although current laws already prohibit harassment and discrimination, Ammiano said Seth’s Law clarifies what schools must do to prevent it.
The San Francisco Unified School District is already working to prevent bullying, said Kevin Gogin, who oversees district services for LGBT students. However, district officials were supportive of Seth’s Law.
“I think it reinforces what we’re doing already,” Gogin said.
Although Gogin acknowledged there was more work to be done to protect LGBT students from bullies, he said the situation was dramatically better than when he began working in the district 20 years ago.
“If you look at what’s happened from 1990 to 2011, there wasn’t even the admission that we have gay kids in high school,” Gogin said.
Ammiano, who is gay, said that he too was bullied at school, long before the problem was openly acknowledged.
“That was in the ’40s and ’50s,” he said. “When you did try to fight back, you were even more ridiculed. It was a terrible, isolating thing.”
Although San Francisco may be more open to diversity than many places, bullying remains a problem in The City’s schools.
– 11%: San Francisco high school students who reported being gay, bisexual or unsure of their sexual orientation
– 16%: Middle school students who reported being gay, bisexual or unsure of their sexual orientation
– 8%: Girls who reported being bullied because of sexual orientation
– 18%: Boys who reported being bullied because of sexual orientation
– 9%: High school students who attempted suicide
Sources: SFUSD Youth Risk Behavior and California Healthy Kids surveys, 2009