Seth's Law: Can a Bullied Boy Leave California a Legal Legacy?

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The Bakersfield Californian / Zuma

Wendy Walsh holds up a picture of her son Seth, a 13-year-old who committed suicide after being bullied at school for being gay

Wendy Walsh walked outside her house in Tehachapi, Calif., last year to find her son Seth hanging from a plum tree. The attempted suicide, which led to his death days later, occurred after the 13-year-old had urged his mother to pick him up from the park because other kids were bullying him. The harassment wasn't a onetime event; children at school had made fun of him for years because he was gay. "I know this will bring much pain, but I will hopefully be in a better place than this s--thole," said the suicide note that Wendy read in an interview with TIME. "And make sure to make the school feel like s--t for bringing you this sorrow."

Indeed, rights groups and some lawmakers want schools to respond to the tragedy with better policies. Sacramento has taken action by pushing a bill dubbed Seth's Law through the state legislature. Currently in a senate committee after passing the state assembly, it would require all public schools to put procedures in place to address incidents of bullying and to explicitly state their policies on discrimination against gay and lesbian students as well as against other minorities. Under current law, requirements are vague, and only some schools address complaints of bullying. Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, says that means the bill will help combat a troubling trend: 80% of gay students nationwide report that school employees do little or nothing to stop antigay behavior when they witness it. "We can make clear to schools that part of their responsibility is to take care of the bullying and harassment that is part of students' daily life right now," Byard says. "Legislation makes that responsibility very clear and provides critical guidance as to how to make a dent in the problem." California's efforts are also encouraging because students from states with comprehensive antibullying laws report lower levels of harassment and a higher frequency of staff intervention, according to a report by Byard's group.

While it's a valiant effort and a step in the right direction, the bill may not do enough to prevent pervasive bullying. First, budget problems have led lawmakers to water down the bill, diminishing its potential impact. Lawmakers have stripped the bill of a key component that would have provided mandatory training. They have also taken out a part of the bill that would have allowed students who bully to undergo alternative methods of discipline like counseling or anger management, rather than just being suspended from school. Compliance may be a challenge as well since the state may not follow up enough to ensure the rules are effective, says Ron Astor, a professor of urban social development at the University of Southern California. If the bill passes, state officials will randomly check schools to make sure they're implementing antibullying policies, but only as one small part of a large compliance process. "I hope the consciousness and awareness will be so high that people will just do it on their own," Astor says. "But you worry a little bit. I wish there was more teeth behind the compliance piece. I wish there was more training in particular for the principals and teachers." Byard is concerned too: "The main concern is: Has the legislative process watered down its requirements so much that it won't have the intended effect?"

The legislative effort also points to a more fundamental problem: the difficulty of using public policy to prevent violence and evoke change in the nation's schools. Bullying is a deep-rooted problem with varied causes that are often outside the purview of laws, including troubled or violent homes that spur kids to take their anger out on other children. Finally, complicating the issue even further is a California school system steeped in dense bureaucracy, says Stuart Biegel, a professor at UCLA's Graduate School of Education and School of Law who has also worked as a K-12 teacher. "You can have the best laws on the books, but they may not do a whole lot because education in particular is difficult to change," Biegel says.

For Wendy Walsh, however, any legislation is progress. "He was pushed. He was ridiculed. The bullying was in every form," she says about Seth. "When I complain to the principal, the vice principal and they choose to do absolutely nothing about it, they're kind of saying it's O.K. to bully this kid." She says the bill should help prevent this negligence from happening. "It will make a safer environment for students," she says. That may depend on what is left of Seth's Law.