Teen Died By Suicide; Bullying Over Sexuality Killed Him: Mom
This is a passing moment, the Ridgewood, New Jersey mom, might tell Tyler. You may think hundreds of people saw the post, but you can probably count the actual viewers on both hands and have fingers to spare. Don’t magnify the importance and reach of this in your mind. You’ll get through it. You’ll find your happy life.
But Tyler Clementi didn’t.
On Sept. 22, 2010, at 18 years old, the Rutgers University freshman, eulogized for his kind heart and bright spirit, jumped off a bridge and ended his life.
“He made a really terrible decision, and we can’t ever change that — a permanent solution to a temporary situation,” Jane Clementi says.
If someone had stepped in — if only she had known to step in — Tyler “could have weathered the storm, and not succumbed to the jokes and humiliation,” Clementi says.
At 61 years old, Clementi is a reluctant expert on bullying and cyberbullying, thrust into the role by her son’s abrupt decision. Like a lot of parents who grew up before the internet and social media changed how young people talk to each other, she was blissfully unaware of how nasty, hateful and vindictive communication can get in the cyberworld.
‘A Grotesque Voyeuristic Spectacle’
In no world Clementi was familiar with would her son’s roommate bug their Rutgers dorm room and livestream on Facebook a few seconds that showed Tyler kissing another man.
The roommate, Dharun Ravi, was convicted in 2012 on all 15 charges filed against him, including bias intimidation and invasion of privacy. An appellate court tossed out the charges in 2016, including those filed under a bias intimidation law the New Jersey Supreme Court had ruled unconstitutional in 2013.
The entire conviction was overturned, the three-judge appeals court panel wrote, because the evidence presented by prosecutors tainted the jury’s “verdict on the remaining charges, depriving [the] defendant of his constitutional right to a fair trial,” The Associated Press reported.
But even as they dismissed the charges, the judges wrote in a stern opinion “the social environment that transformed a private act of sexual intimacy into a grotesque voyeuristic spectacle must be unequivocally condemned in the strongest possible way.”
Ravi got a new trial and new charges, including invasion of privacy, tampering with evidence and hindering apprehension. Ravi pleaded guilty in 2016 to invasion of privacy. Ravi could have faced 10 years in prison, but was sentenced to 30 days in the county jail plus three years’ probation and community service. He served 20 days.
‘You Take The Bullying With You’
Nine years after Tyler died, his mother’s voice still cracks when she imagines how “horrible and lonely” his final hours of Earth must have been. Jane Clementi says she and Tyler’s dad, Joe, know from a computer forensics investigation that their son “kept logging back in to read posts, looking and taking screenshots and reading the same comments over and over.”
“It’s not like you can go home; you take the bullying with you,” Jane Clementi says, speaking in a telephone interview as part of Patch’s “Menace of Bullies” national advocacy reporting project, which aims to give readers the information about bullying and cyberbullying the New Jersey parents didn’t have.
Clementi contacted Patch after seeing the series, joining other organizations such as No Bully, the Cyberbullying Research Center and other groups alarmed by statistics showing one in three U.S. children are bullied. As many as 59 percent of U.S. students experience some form of cyberbullying, according to findings last year by the Pew Research Center, and the National Association of School Psychologists says about 160,000 kids stay home from school every day to avoid their bullies.
Cyberbullying is especially insidious. Kids who are targeted over-imagine the reach of vile social media posts, magnifying their mortification many times over.
“Even if only five people saw a post, in your head it’s 500,” Clementi says. “You don’t want one person reading it, and you’re thinking the whole world had seen it. It just spirals out of control, and can get you in a horrible, very lonely place.”
In a climate still oppressive to LGBTQ people despite anti-discrimination laws in about half of U.S. states and the legalization of same-sex marriage nearly five years ago, Tyler imagined his life was over, his mother says.
Kids and young adults are relentlessly cyberbullied over other things as well. They’re targeted over their race, ethnicity, religion or disabilities; because they weigh too much or not enough; because they wear glasses or are smart; because of the clothing they wear and the size of their parents’ bank accounts; or over any number of things that make them unique or different.
Cyberbullying often happens when youths are alone with their electronic devices and their feelings of inadequacy, says social worker Caroline Fenkel, who works with teens on self-harm and other issues for the Newport Academy residential treatment program in Malvern, Pennsylvania.
“Typically, cyberbullying is happening late at night, when teens are already very lonely and in a very dark place, externalizing their feelings that they’re just a depressed loser — and that’s going to magnify it for them,” Fenkel told Patch in an earlier interview for this series.
Teens don’t always think about how devastating their online taunts can be to their targets.
“People’s words and the pictures they put up on this cyberworld have deep consequences — life-and-death consequences,” Clementi says. “I do believe it was because of his sexual orientation, something that made him special and precious, a God-given trait. Why they did it, what the motive was, we’ll probably never know.
“What good was it going to do for this person to humiliate Tyler?”
No One Stepped Up For Tyler Clementi
What Clementi has learned in the nine years since Tyler’s death is that LGBTQ youths like her son are about three times more likely to die by suicide than their heterosexual peers, according to a study published last year that pooled data from 35 earlier studies.
Additionally, the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found 33 percent of youths who identify or are perceived as LGBTQ were bullied on school property in the prior year, and 21 percent were cyberbullied. When heterosexual students were surveyed, 17 percent said they had been bullied on school property; 13 percent said they had been cyberbullied.
Five years after Tyler’s death attracted national attention and ignited a movement to end anti-gay bullying, the family founded the Tyler Clementi Foundation to help end online and offline bullying in schools and sports teams, on the job and in faith communities.
One of the aspects of Tyler’s death that is most troubling to the family is that no one stepped up to call out his roommate for the webcast.
“A lot of people saw what was happening,” Clementi says of Ravi’s livestream. “So many people remained silent. In the digital world, you’ve got to stand up and say something — not be a passive bystander, but an active upstander.
“We never want someone to intervene and come into harm’s way,” she says, “but there are simple things you can to interrupt bullying — leave the situation with the target, say you don’t think using racist, homophobic names is funny and, if that doesn’t help, report it.”
Most important, Clementi says, “reach out to the person being bullied and humiliated, and make sure they’re not alone.”
“If someone had reached out to Tyler, I think the story would have been different. It’s not as easy for the person in the sad, dark place of despair to see the resources,” she says, emphasizing, “You really have to reach out.”
The foundation’s new research-based #Day1 Campaign responds to the desire of school teachers and others to take a proactive stand to prevent bullying before it happens. The program came out of testimonials from frontline teachers who “have told us that early, clear leadership on bullying is free, simple and effective,” the foundation says on its website. “We are taking that idea to scale and improving on it. … We cannot wait for policies or attitudes to change. We can’t wait for new curriculum or longitudinal studies to come out to do something about bullying.”
The foundation is also about halfway to its goal of getting 1 million people to take an Upstander Pledge to call out bullying, whether speaking in the digital world or in the real world with friends, families, colleagues and teammates. Its Upstander Speaker Series, available to schools and workplaces, offers personal stories about bullying and cyberbullying, human rights, families affected by suicide, and bigotry.
The foundation also supports federal anti-bullying legislation, including the Safe Schools Improvement Act, the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act and the Intimate Privacy Protection Act, which addresses cyber harassment that disproportionately hurts women, girls and the LGBTQ community.
“We are spoon-feeding civility,” Clementi says. “We value everyone in society, and we’re not going to tolerate behavior that is pushed beyond the boundaries. We are always telling people to be kind, but they don’t always know what kind looks like, so we have to start a conversation.”
Tyler Clementi’s parents and siblings feel the pain of Tyler’s death as freshly as if it were moments instead of years ago every time a headline pops up dealing with the suicide of a bullied LGBTQ teen. Among the most recent casualties was Channing Smith, a Tennessee teen who took his life after he was outed as bisexual on social media.
“It’s just heartbreaking,” Clementi says. “Every time I read a story like that I see so many similarities with Tyler. That was nine years ago. I have to take a minute and take a breath.”
The foundation isn’t limited to addressing LGBTQ bullying, but at the time it was founded, there weren’t many focusing on bullying based on a person’s sexual orientation of identity.
“We didn’t want that to happen to another child, another person, another human being,” Jane Clementi says. “We want to make sure no one else feels that pain and humiliation.
“We’ve changed the conversation a little bit and more people are aware of the problem, but there are still issues where young people are taking their lives,” Clementi says. “Obviously, there’s more work to be done. We could be helping many, many more.”