Rutgers’ Student’s Death Sparks Shock, Outrage

By Melanie Muller

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Courtesy of flickr.com

The nation was shocked last week when Tyler Clementi, a freshman student at Rutgers University, jumped to his death last week from the George Washington Bridge.

Despite the fact that numerous college students commit suicide each year, Clementi’s death was particularly unnerving as his death is one of the four recent suicides prompted from bullying a student’s homosexuality or alleged homosexuality.

Dharun Ravi, Clementi’s roommate, allegedly streamed live video on the Internet of Clementi engaging in a sexual encounter with another man from the room of another freshman, Molly Wei. The night of the video’s taping, Ravi’s Twitter post read, “Roommate asked for the room ‘till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”

Ravi and Wei have been charged with invasion of privacy under New Jersey Law, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Hate crime charges are being considered for the pair, which would lengthen a potential sentence to 10 years, according to a New York Times article, “Legal Debate Swirls Over Charges in a Student’s Suicide,” published Oct.1.

Hours before taking his own life, Clementi’s Facebook status read, “jumping off the GW bridge, sorry.”

University of Massachusetts students were saddened at the news of the Clementi’s death. Freshman Sarah Zuraw said she thought the whole affair was “pretty terrible.” Evan Sheinhait, also a freshman, was “surprised at how quickly it had all escalated and that the suicide happened so early in the semester.”

The news of the suicide caused outrage from the American media. Television personalities including Katie Couric and Ellen DeGeneres decried the taping on their shows and the event has been discussed extensively in the New York Times, Huffington Post and on television news networks.

The case has been discussed in light of the plight of gay teens generally, who commit suicide at four times the rate of straight teens, and of the growing phenomenon of cyber-bullying, according to a New York Times blog entitled, “Motherload.”

The reaction at Rutgers was strong as well. Candlelight vigils were held, as well as a protest by gay students for safe spaces and general safer living on campus. According to the Examiner, Rutgers students debated whether the taping was in fact a crime or merely a “thoughtless prank.”

In Rutgers’student newspaper, the Daily Targum, the editorial board criticized those who protested outside the student center, claiming they and certain members of the media were “exploiting” the tragedy. In the Oct. 5 editorial entitled “Media Exploits University Tragedy,” the editors denied the legitimacy of gay groups using the tragedy as a rallying point, writing, “the focal point of Clementi’s tragic death should have been a boy’s inability to deal with the hardships of life.”

The editorial inspired a huge debate on the Targum’s website, with 419 comments posted as of Monday night. By comparison, both of the Targum’s Monday editorials netted a total of three comments. Some comments attacked the use of, “the hardships of life,” to refer to Ravi and Wei’s actions. A number of comments called for the expulsion of Ravi and Wei and criticized the Rutgers administration for failing to discipline Wei and Ravi.

It is not yet clear whether Rutgers will discipline Wei and Ravi. The Rutgers Student Code of Conduct contains a clause designating “making or attempting to make an audio or video recording of any person(s) on University premises in bathrooms, showers, bedrooms or other premises where there is an expectation of privacy with respect to nudity and/or sexual activity, without the knowledge and consent of all participants subject to such recordings,” a separable offense, according to the Rutgers Student Code of Conduct.

According to the New York Times article “Before Suicide, Hints in Online Musings,” published on Sept. 30, there is evidence that Clementi informed a residence assistant of his situation less than 24 hours before his death. According to a blog titled “Kashmir Hill” on Forbes.com, messages posted onto a site for gay men from a computer at Rutgers seem highly likely to have originated from Clementi. The user “cit2mo” details his roommate’s spying on him with a webcam and asks for advice on what to do. In the final posts, the writer says, “went to the nearest RA,” to complain, who he said, “Seemed to take it seriously.” The RA allegedly asked cit2mo to, “email him a written a written paragraph about what exactly happened.”

UMass residential assistants Alex Tasak and Daniel Child said that if faced with a complaint of a roommate streaming video onto the internet they would immediately refer the matter to the Residence Director of their cluster. “I would first talk to the roommates separately, and ask the victim if there was anything I could do to help” Child said, “and then ask the other one ‘what were you thinking?” Tasak and Child agreed that the offender would then most likely be expelled from student housing. Tasak also noted that if the victim of the invasion of privacy seemed distressed she would escort them to Mental Health Services.

The UMass Student Code of Conduct does not specifically designate nonconsensual recordings as an offense, but the document does list “harassment” as a violation of the code. The term “harassment” is defined broadly, with special concern reserved for “incidents in which students are subject to such conduct because of membership in a particular racial, religious, gender or sexual orientation group, disability or veteran status.”

Melanie Muller can be reached at [email protected]