WASHINGTON – The Departments of Justice and Education reached a settlement agreement with the Tehachapi Unified School District in Tehachapi, Calif., to resolve an investigation into the harassment of a middle school student 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.
In September 2010, Jacobsen Middle School student Seth Walsh committed suicide at the age of 13. In October 2010, the Department of Education received a complaint alleging that Walsh had been the victim of severe and persistent peer-on-peer sex-based harassment while he was a student at Jacobsen. After receiving the complaint, the Department of Education initiated an extensive investigation into the circumstances leading to Walsh’s death and, together with the Department of Justice, worked collaboratively with the school district to resolve the violations.
The investigation found that Walsh suffered sexual and gender-based harassment by his peers. The investigation also found that Walsh was targeted for harassment for more than two school years because of his nonconformity with gender stereotypes, including his predominantly female friendships and stereotypically feminine mannerisms, speech and clothing. The departments determined that the harassment, which included ongoing and escalating verbal, physical and sexual harassment by other students at school, was sufficiently severe, pervasive and persistent to interfere with his educational opportunities. Despite having notice of the harassment, the district did not adequately investigate or otherwise respond to it. Based on the evidence gathered in the investigation, the departments concluded that the school district violated Title IX and Title IV.
Under the terms of the resolution agreement, the district will take a variety of steps to prevent sexual and gender-based harassment at all of its schools, to respond appropriately to harassment that occurs and to eliminate the hostile environment resulting from harassment. The district has agreed to revise its policies and regulations related to sexual and gender-based harassment and to retain a consultant to provide mandatory trainings on sexual and gender-based harassment for all students, administrators, teachers, counselors and other staff who interact with students. In addition, the district will assess the presence of sexual and gender-based harassment in its schools through school climate surveys, adopt appropriate actions to address issues identified by those surveys and form an advisory committee of administrators, students and parents to advise the district on school climate issues related to sex-based harassment.
“All students have the right to go to school without fearing harassment on the basis of their sex, including because they do not conform to gender stereotypes. Seth’s story and others like it sadly demonstrate that a school’s failure to address and prevent harassment can have tragic consequences,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “We commend the school district for working with the departments to address this matter effectively and encourage other school districts to take affirmative steps to ensure that all students can go to school without facing discrimination and harassment.”
“We know that if students aren't safe, then students aren't learning,” said Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali. “Bullying, sexual harassment and gender stereotyping – of any student, including LBGT students -- have no place in our nation’s schools. We must work to stop those abusive behaviors when they take place, repair their harmful effects, and prevent them from happening in the future. Today's announcement is an important step in that direction.”
The enforcement of Title IV and Title IX are top priorities of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Additional information about the Civil Rights Division is available on its website at www.justice.gov/crt . Enforcement of Title IX is also a top priority of Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Additional information about the Office for Civil Rights is available on its website at www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/index.html .