As the new academic year begins at Rutgers University, some things about dorm living have changed. There are now more housing options for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students. It’s not only because of Tyler Clementi, but his death certainly played a role.
Clementi was the freshman whose roommate outed him last September by live-streaming—and encouraging other students to watch—the young man’s sexual encounter with another male student. Three days later Clementi leaped from the George Washington Bridge.
His death generated enormous publicity, which fueled an ongoing national dialogue about cyberbullying—a discussion that flares anew each time a young person who has been victimized commits suicide. It also spurred criticism of Rutgers (New Jersey’s state school) by a host of outsiders, which in turn led to serious reflection by students and administrators there and beyond about the adequacy of campus rules on harassment.
Responses from a variety of lawyers suggest that the fault isn’t with the rules. The problem, they say, is simply bad behavior exacerbated by the ability of today’s students to instantly zap words and images around the globe.
The dialogue has not been limited to campus chatter. Clementi’s former roommate, Dharun Ravi, was indicted in May, charged with invading the young man’s privacy, obstructing justice, and tampering with a witness. And because Ravi allegedly targeted gay students, he’s also charged with bias crimes.
The case helped prod the New Jersey legislature to pass what was described as the toughest antibullying bill in the country, which Governor Chris Christie signed in January. Tennessee and Rhode Island passed laws this summer that specifically outlawed cyberbullying. And bullying is an issue in the corporate workplace as well [see "Bullying is a Workplace Issue, Too"].
But the changes at Rutgers are not monumental. “There aren’t new rules” governing behavior, says Jenny Kurtz, director of the Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities. “But I think that’s because the rules are really clear, and clearly enforced,” she adds. Kurtz is the campus representative to whom Rutgers general counsel Jonathan Alger referred questions about changes since Clementi’s death.
The university has a student code of conduct that prohibits violations of ­privacy, and it covered Ravi’s alleged behavior. The school is also home to the second-oldest gay college student organization in the country, and administrators felt they were responsive to this population’s needs. “But like any campus,” says Kurtz, “we should always be doing more.”
Now they are. Some of the initiatives adopted were in progress before Clementi died. The gender-neutral housing that transgender students had pushed for is finally available. But a new housing option allows first-year LGBT students to work with Rutger’s Residence Life staff and agree in advance to share a room. This seems to be a direct response to Clementi’s death—an event that moved many Rutgers students to mobilize.
Kurtz gives credit to these students for their effective advocacy: “They talked about their perspectives, and they used their voices, and people really listened.”
Cyberbullying was featured in a panel discussion at the National Association of College and University Attorneys’ conference in June. One of the lawyers on the NACUA panel was Tracy Mitrano, director of information technology policy at Cornell University. Her sense from the conference and a decade on the job is that there’s a growing consensus that the problem isn’t the rules.
“Education about how students use technology in ways that may be violating the rules is what’s needed,” Mitrano says, “not new rules.”
Unlike drug companies, she notes, technology firms aren’t regulated. Microsoft Corporation and Google Inc. don’t have to test products and warn consumers of possible dangers. If no one is regulating technology, Mitrano says, and it’s “pushed by a market eager for its sale, and embraced enthusiastically by young people,” students could easily find themselves “violating law or policy.” The solution, she adds, is to alert them to dangers, and help guide them through.
That strategy has helped students fend off commercial gossip sites. Mitrano mentions the example of JuicyGossip.com, which posted anonymous and often malicious comments about Cornell students, she says. The school helped educate students about the site’s business model; the students organized a boycott; and their parents contacted advertisers that supported the site. That particular site is now defunct.
The challenge for schools is to combat bullying in a way that doesn’t compromise freedom of speech. Mary Kennard, general counsel of American University, notes that the Internet’s anonymity “creates the opportunity for misuse and abuse.” On the one hand, “we try to create an environment in which people can say just about anything—controversial or not,” she says. “At the same time we need to make sure that people in our community are as protected as they can be.”
Her school didn’t change any rules after Clementi’s death, Kennard says, “because our student conduct codes and other codes of responsibility would already cover that type of incident.” But his death certainly had an impact on campus. “It heightened awareness of cyberbullying,” she says. “It’s my guess,” she adds, “that straight students are more aware of the needs and concerns of gay students, and therefore more sensitive to some of the difficulties that they have being on our campus.”
Mitrano believes Clementi’s death has been widely influential. “Nothing has had as profound an effect on me personally as his suicide,” she says. “The only way an educator can approach the sadness of an incident like this one,” she continues, “is to turn it into an educational opportunity in the hope that it will prevent anyone else from thinking they have to take their lives under these kinds of circumstances.”