Tehachapi Unified School District Superintendent Richard Swanson (pictured below), who has the feds breathing down his neck after Wendy Walsh, the mother of bullycide victim Seth Walsh, made good on her son’s request, has at last responded to the ACLU’s demands that his district figure out how to better protect LGBT kids.
Last month, Swanson could be heard saying, “I don’t think we’ve addressed Seth’s issue in terms of sexuality directly.” This month? Well, he’s not exactly bending over backward to meet the ACLU’s requests. But is that all right? Hah. The Bakersfield Californian reports:
He wrote that while many of the ACLU’s recommendations are constructive, the district had policies and practices in place to address harassment, in all forms, prior to the suicide death of Seth Walsh, 13, last September. Swanson’s letter, to San Francisco-based ACLU attorney Elizabeth Gill, questions the ACLU’s assertions that harassment of Seth was egregious and relentless. He defends his teachers, administrators and the district’s students against those accusations.
“Many of the purported events, which you have advised, are surprising,” he wrote. “I find it difficult to believe that our middle school students threw sandwiches and water bottles at Seth, that he was allowed to be continually threatened in the locker room, or that any student was able to call him a derogatory name in a public setting on school grounds without a consequence. “Particularly egregious are your suggestions that school administrators were fully apprised of the harassment Seth was apparently experiencing, yet failed to respond appropriately.” The superintendent wrote he does not doubt the authenticity of the ACLU’s evidence, but to discipline wrongdoers, he needs to know who they are so evidence can be gathered: “Toward that end, the district will be retaining an investigator to follow up on and verify the allegations made by your correspondence.”
If the ACLU is aware of “any individual students who are being harassed for their gender orientation,” Swanson wrote, “please tell me who they are. If necessary, I will see that extra staff is immediately hired and/or current staff is deployed in order to increase the likelihood that individual acts of harassment are observed and punished.
I’m sorry, but while I haven’t been in middle school in many, many years, I can attest that even back then kids were tormented (in the cafeteria, with food thrown at them, and in the locker room, with them shoved against the wall). This type of bullying shouldn’t be news to school administrators. It’s been going on for decades. It’s the stuff that should be the focus of panels at annual educational conferences. To find it “difficult to believe” this type of harassment takes place is nearly an admittance of malpractice. While Swanson’s duties are, to be sure, mainly administrative, it is also his job to keep his schools safe. He just told the ACLU that not only has he not been fulfilling that job requirement, he can’t even believe his schools would be a place where kids brutally bully each other. That sort of blindness is, simply, unacceptable.
The ACLU, too, believes Swanson’s response isn’t good enough.
In her Dec. 30 response to Swanson, [ACLU attorney Elizabeth Gill] states that Swanson’s vow to punish wrongdoers falls short of what the civil rights organization spelled out as its goal in its initial letter of Dec. 16 to the district.
“…our letter describes a widespread climate of anti-gay bias in the district that cannot be addressed simply by disciplining individual students.” Gill wrote. “Instead… as our letter explains, such a climate demands comprehensive action on the part of the district that is designed to address the underlying causes of anti-gay bias. We will communicate with you directly about students in the district who continue to suffer harassment based on their sexual and/or gender identity, but the need for the district to take steps outlined in our letter remains the same.”
The Dec. 16 letter set a Dec. 30 deadline for the district to provide the ACLU with plans to redress gender discrimination and harassment. It brought a threat of litigation and financial punishment for the district if the ACLU was not satisfied.
What does this back and forth show? That Tehachapi Unified, while aware of the bullying problem, is not owning it. And until it owns it, it cannot solve it. Which means LGBT students at Tehachapi Unified are still not safe from bullies, even after a 13-year-old boy died for them.
Mr. Swanson’s email address is [email protected], and his phone number is (661) 822-2100. You know, in case you’d like to share stories with him about how kids can be harassed by other kids while teachers, staff, and faculty turn a blind eye. Listen, Swanson: If you know how to confiscate cell phones and iPods during school hours, you should know how to spot a child in need.