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Seth’s Law proposed to make schools safer for California's LGBT students

SACRAMENTO -- A comprehensive bill introduced today in the Assembly would tackle school bullying by providing California schools with specific tools to prevent and address the pervasive problem in order to create a safe school environment for all students.

AB 9, also known as Seth’s Law, would ensure that every school in California implements updated anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies and programs that include actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, as well as race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, disability and religion.

It would also empower students and parents to know what their rights are, and how to advocate for them.

AB 9 is named “Seth’s Law” in memory of Seth Walsh, a 13-year-old gay student from Tehachapi, Calif., who took his own life in September 2010 after facing years of relentless anti-gay harassment at school that school officials effectively ignored.

“Seth was a wonderful, loving child, and I loved him for who he was,” said his mother Wendy Walsh. “I can't bring my son back. But schools can make a difference today by taking bullying seriously when students and parents tell them about it. It’s time for change. We have to create better schools for everyone.”

Schools often do not have the tools or knowledge to adequately protect LGBT students and others from bullying, which remains a serious issue across California and the rest of the nation. Students, parents, and school employees often don’t know what the rules are or what to do if bullying occurs.

“As a former teacher, I know how important it is for our students to feel safe at school. Each day throughout California, LGBT youth experience harassment. I am proud to introduce this bill in honor of Seth Walsh, which will give schools the necessary tools to prevent any young person from being bullied, harassed or worse because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression,” Assemblymember Tom Ammiano said.
The bill is co-sponsored by a coalition of organizations advancing LGBT equality and justice, including the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Equality California, the ACLU’s California Affiliates and Gay-Straight Alliance Network.

“No child should fear going to school, and yet that is the daily reality for thousands of California students who face relentless harassment and bullying,” said Kate Kendell, National Center for Lesbian Rights executive director.

“It’s our responsibility to make sure schools are taking active steps to address this problem and using the tools that we know will work to create true change. It is not enough to punish students who bully. We must create a school-wide culture of inclusion and respect for difference.”

Those sentiments were echoes by Geoff Kors, Equality California executive director.

“Everyday in California, many students go to school fearful of another day of harassment and intimidation with no hope of a better tomorrow. Seth's Law will give all students the tools to seek the help they need to keep them safe and make sure that educators combat bullying in our schools,” Kors said.

Elizabeth Gill, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, pointed out the need for this bill.

“Public schools have tremendous power and responsibility to protect students from bullying and harassment,” Gill said. “Better school procedures and policies to prevent and address bullying will make a safer environment for students who are suffering, and can even save lives.”

In a recent national survey, nine out of 10 LGBT students reported being harassed at school. The problem persists in California as well, with LGBT students reporting significant harassment.

The California Safe Schools Coalition reported in 2010 that 42% of California students who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual and 62 percent who identify as transgender reported being harassed at least once based on gender non-conformity.

What’s more, young people often face bullying and harassment based on what their peers perceive to be their sexual orientation, regardless of whether they identify as being LGBT. According to the most recent California Healthy Kids Survey 12% of seventh-graders and 10% percent of ninth-graders reported being harassed based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation.

The consequences of bullying and harassment can include falling grades, depression, and risk of suicide. LGBT youth are three times as likely to seriously consider suicide as heterosexual youth.

“Bullying can have serious and tragic consequences, particularly for students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender,” said Carolyn Laub, executive director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network. “We must take pro-active steps to ensure that California’s schools are safe for every student. Seth’s Law will help schools protect students, and prevent and respond to bullying before a tragedy occurs.”

Under Seth’s Law, every school district in California would:

o Create strong and clear anti-harassment policies and programs, if they don’t have them already.

o Have a system in place to ensure that all reports of harassment are taken seriously, addressed quickly, and that parents and students understand the process of making these complaints.

o Explain the harmful impact of bullying and discrimination to students and staff.

o Provide ongoing professional development for teachers, school counselors and administrators about identifying and stopping harassment and discrimination and creating a school-wide culture of inclusion and respect for difference.