Death of California youth puts focus on rise in antigay bullying

13-year-old's death adds to nationwide spike this year in such cases, education group says. In a recent survey of LGBT students at middle and high schools, more than 80 percent say they were verbally harassed, while 40 percent reported physical harassment.

By , Staff writer

The death of 13-year-old Seth Walsh in California is one of at least three youth suicide cases nationwide this month that are prompting renewed attention to antigay bullying.

“It appears that what has always been a crisis is that much more severe right now,” says Daryl Presgraves, spokesman for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

In the five years that Mr. Presgraves has been tracking media reports of such cases, this past year has included the largest spike he’s seen, including the suicides of four students in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District who were reportedly discriminated against because they were gay or were perceived as gay.

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“We’re hopeful that because of the renewed interest in bullying and attention from the federal government, schools will begin to take the necessary steps to makes sure all students, including LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) students, are safe and have an opportunity to get an education,” Presgraves says.

Seth Walsh died Tuesday, nine days after a suicide attempt at his home in Tehachapi, Calif., left him on life support. Police, who investigated allegations that Walsh was subject to antigay bullying, said that youngsters who teased the boy expressed remorse, but that the behavior did not constitute a crime, according to Tehachapinews.com. A memorial service is scheduled for Oct. 1.

In a 2009 survey of more than 7,000 LGBT middle and high school students by Presgraves’ Education Network, 84.6 percent said they were verbally harassed, 40.1 percent physically harassed, and 18.8 percent physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation. In the past 10 years, the incidence of homophobic verbal attacks has decreased, according to these annual surveys, but the physical violence has not.

Other teen surveys show that heterosexual students who are perceived to be gay are often the victims of such harassment, according to the website StopBullyingNow.

The Safe Schools Improvement Act, a bill with bipartisan support in the US House of Representatives, would promote bullying prevention in schools with policies that explicitly address harassment related to sexual orientation.

“When it comes to bias-based bullying you have to name the problem to make an impact,” Presgraves says, but currently only 10 states have such comprehensive antibullying laws. By contrast, a number of states and districts have policies against educators discussing sexual orientation in the classroom, he says, which sends an unclear message about what teachers should do when they witness antigay bullying.

Asher Brown, an eighth-grader in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Texas, killed himself last week. His family says they had complained to school officials about bullying for the past 18 months, but the school disputes that, according to the Houston Chronicle. His stepfather told the newspaper that he was fine with the disclosure from Asher, on the morning of the suicide, that he was gay.

In another case earlier this month, the sexual orientation of Billy Lucas in Greensburg, Ind., was not known, but his suicide followed repeated anti-gay bullying. His case prompted gay author and columnist Dan Savage to launch a YouTube channel where people can post videos encouraging youths with their own stories of how they survived alienation or bullying and found that as they got older their lives got much better. “Your life will be awesome, so give yourself the opportunity to have that life ... and don’t let the bullies take that away from you,” one man urges in his video.

Places to call for help:

  • The Trevor Project operates a 24-hour hotline for gay and questioning youth: 866-4-U-TREVOR (488-7386)
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)
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