18 year old Tyler Clementi’s suicide seemed to be the latest of many among teens bullied at school for everything from their appearance to their sexuality; after discovering his sexual encounter with another male was filmed and broadcast on the web, he apparently jumped off a local bridge. In response to what happened to Clementi everyone from gay rights activists to congressional figures have called for Rutgers and campuses like it to create policies against bullying and other forms of harassment; the incident seeming to open the flood gates as people come forward talking about their traumatic experiences in school being gay or otherwise different from their peers. Gay rights supporters, celebrities and even the President have posted messages in a web based video campaign designed to tell gay and other ostracized teens it gets better. The college students reportedly involved in making and distributing the sex tape are said to be charged with 2 counts of invasion of privacy facing a total of 10 years in prison if convicted with the possibility of additional hate crimes indictments.
But it begs the question, was this really a hate crime, was this about Tyler Clementi being gay and being targeted as a gay person, or was this a college prank gone too far, a cruel joke that was too much for one human being to take, something where sexual orientation played only a small part? Despite this young man’s suicide becoming a rallying point for both tolerance of homosexuals as well as a national stand against bullying, there is no evidence he was harassed, bullied, tormented by classmates because he was gay or for any other reason; at the same time, there is no evidence his roommate, one of the alleged makers of the video, held any animosity or contempt for him because of his sexuality. In fact comments posted by the roommate seem to indicate he was almost congratulating Clementi on the encounter; furthermore it appears as if the video was placed on the web because it was interesting, somewhere along the lines of the geek get some action type of thing. Of course it was wrong, of course it was an invasion of privacy, of course it was cruel, but it was not a hate crime. Indications presented tell the public, if not investigators, this was a crime of opportunity, a crime of stupidity not maliciousness.
If anyone was uncomfortable with his sexuality it was Clementi himself described by friends and fellow students as shy and quiet, a person who often let his violin speak for him, convey his emotions, it is easy to picture a shy awkward kid and how an incident like what happened to him would be overwhelming. As apparent by his suicide, he either could not handle being gay or did not know how to cope with having his sexuality, homosexual or heterosexual broadcast to the world. The true tragedy here is him feeling like he had no other options than death, he did not know what else to do or who to turn to. Part of the campaigns going on right now need to be focused on making students aware of their rights of both campus, social service and legal resources available to them to handle any and all issues that come up. How do you handle web content out there forever; how do you make it not the end of your world, how do you know when to press charges, when to take things through school channels? How to accurately but discreetly apply for room changes, something Clementi did after discovering the tape’s existence, availability of confidential counseling, establishing anonymous crisis lines where people do not have to give their name and you don’t know the crisis line worker your speaking with which might have given him someplace to discuss what happened in a less humiliating way.
Unfortunately due to the situation ending in suicide, it raises somewhat disturbing questions about the potential prison time the accused students face; would they be up against so much time if the victim had not made the choice to end his life? Similarly, regardless of whether or not hate crime charges are added, is there any convincing a jury, a court of law that Tyler Clementi being gay was not the sole reason he was singled out, if he was singled out at all; would the accused be presented with more legal options, more leniency if it were a male, female, heterosexual act filmed by a third party? Likewise classifying, or in this case, judging by the reaction, vilifying the accused as homophobic does little to solve the larger problem, that we as a nation do a poor job of first and foremost keeping laws current as they apply to events, situations, technology and an even poorer job of informing particularly, young people, of the laws in existence, how they effect common pranks like this.
While everyone clamors for universities to enact anti bullying, harassment policies emphasizing those meant to eliminate such actions based on sexual orientation, and while some students think the book should be thrown at the accused, calling for manslaughter charges to be brought against them, what honestly needs to happen is an awareness initiative aimed at insuring students are aware of the law. From what has been released about the students involved in the making of the tape they were otherwise good people, had no prior trouble with the law, exactly the type of individuals who would not engage in such behavior had they known doing so could land them in jail for up to 10 years. As heartening as the suggested charges may be to those who’ve lost family members to nearly identical circumstances, it has to be said that no one forced Tyler Clementi to commit suicide, of all the things posted on the roommates twitter page a suggestion or hint to do so wasn’t one of them. And, if asked, those involved would certainly say they never intended for what happened to happen, never thought suicide would be his reaction to what they had done.
The secondary tragedy here is 2 other lives and 2 other families are thrown into turmoil because no one made it clear how much trouble they could get in by doing it in the first place. Universities do need policies and solutions do exist to both problems like these and the bullying so prevalent in headlines today. You make a hidden sex tape remotely like the one of Clementi you are expelled and there is a 99% probability you will face criminal charges. You make a sex tape of yourself with another party and post it without their consent you face the same consequences. Then universities need to make sure students are aware said provisions are in the code of conduct for the school; all of them need better ways of making sure codes of conduct and regulations are assimilated by students, preferably video, interactive interfaces giving real life examples rather than a giant handbook or website bullet points. The latter cutting down on confusion caused by legal jargon and words that do not clearly define a situation or where a visual scenario would be more effective; lastly, make these sessions mandatory especially for incoming freshman classes, special emphasis given to dorm etiquette, off campus housing and how things you do there can effect your on-campus life, common social interactions, pitfalls and what to do about them. Until students have completed the session, they are not allowed to get a dorm assignment, go to class or do anything on campus.
Addressing bullying harassment and potential hate crimes can be somewhat more daunting but not impossible beginning with of course putting forth a policy defining the 3 terms, stiffer penalties for pranks and harassment centered around race, religion or sexual orientation, taking into account the severity of each individual case any bodily harm or symptoms of extreme emotional distress. However on the flipside putting checks and balances in place assuring proper investigation of incidents so that things like what transpired at Rutgers don’t automatically get classified as hate crimes legally or under student codes just because the alleged victim happened to be gay, happened to be a certain ethnicity or practice a specific religion.
Also teaching students to protect themselves to avoid being victims by reporting all bullying and harassment as well as safeguarding themselves against potential bad situations; the same way we talk about designated drivers, dangers of binge drinking, drugs, the importance of always keeping track of your drink at parties, putting forth the idea that your college dorm may not bethe best place to have sex. Even if negotiating with your roommate for privacy doesn’t lead to issues as drastic the eventual sad fate of Tyler Clementi, it can be an embarrassing case of roommate forgot and brought friends of their own. Sex tapes can become accidental occurrences when newer computers almost always equipped with web cams are unintentionally left on. You can be on the receiving end of an eyeful you don’t want if you roommate forgets to tell you they have plans for the room. At the end of the day sex in your dorm room is bad idea. Should it have ended in what happened to this young man definitely not, but that doesn’t make it a hate crime. It is however 100 % preventable.