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Rutgers Student Tyler Clementi's Suicide Spurs Action Across US
Relatively few people knew Tyler Clementi before he jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge, but the wake from that act is now felt around the world.
Within hours after the Rutgers University freshman's body was discovered in the Hudson River last week, his name became known around the world.
MTV stars were lining up to film anti-suicide announcements in his name. Ellen DeGeneres posted a personal tribute to Clementi on her website. Almost every major media outlet in the country devoted time to the story and tens of thousands of people participated in internet memorials to the 18-year-old Ridgewood student.
A bill is already being drafted in New Jersey to stiffen criminal penalties for cyber harassment. Gay rights groups announced a series of New Jersey town hall meetings on Oct. 6 and 7 in Clementi's memory.
Why has the case touched such a nerve?
"Intolerance is growing at the same time cyberspace has given every one of us an almost magical ability to invade other people's lives," said Robert O'Brien, a Rutgers instructor who says he has, by default, become a spokesman for "overwhelmed" lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students on campus.
No one knows why Clementi, a talented young violinist, took his life, but it came after his roommate, Dharun Ravi, used a webcam to watch Clementi having a sexual encounter with another man in their dorm room, prosecutors said.
Ravi had set up the webcam and was watching with a friend, Molly Wei, in her room in the same dormitory, according to authorities. Both have since been charged with invasion of privacy. Clementi appears to have found out about the webcast afterward and had filed a complaint with the resident assistant, according to comments posted on a website that seemed to be written by the Rutgers student, even though he didn't use his name or name of his school.
He jumped on Sept. 22.
It took a week to find the body.
The memorials in his honor were arranged within hours, ironically, through the same social media used to torment him.
"Tyler is the fourth highly publicized gay teen to kill himself in four weeks and he did it the day after the release of the first major study of college campuses that found homosexual students are most likely to experience blatant oppression and hostility," O'Brien added. "I think many people are finally saying enough is enough."
The Clementi case also occurred on the eve of a series of weeklong events across the country in anticipation of "National Coming Out Day" on Oct. 11.
Another factor, several experts said, is Rutgers University is not a parochial little school in the middle of the Bible Belt. It is a diverse series of campuses in the heart of one of the most cosmopolitan regions in the nation.
"Rutgers is justifiably proud of its history as a very progressive, inclusive school. If things like what happened to Tyler Clementi could happen at Rutgers, then gays aren't going to feel safe on any campus anywhere," said Shane Windmeyer, founder and executive director of Campus Pride, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a safer college environment for LGBT students.
"People worried about LGBT kids in high school, but figured they were safe once they got to college," Windmeyer added. "This is a national wake-up call."
The College Pride study, entitled "The State of Higher Education for LGBT People," surveyed more than 5,000 students, faculty members and administrators at colleges and universities across the country.
Although the study was criticized because it was conducted by a gay organization and the respondents were limited to self-identified non-heterosexuals, it did reinforce earlier, smaller studies. It found gays are vastly more likely to experience discrimination on campus, more likely to drop out because of harassment and much more likely to fear for their physical safety.
"The climate on campus is better than, say, 20 years ago, but it still remains troubling," Windmeyer said. "People say sticks and stones won't break your bones, but there's only so much thick skin you can have."
Growing up in Kansas, Windmeyer, who came out at the University of Kansas in the 1990s, said, "I dreamed of going to a place like Rutgers, where it wasn't a big deal to be gay. I wonder now, though, whether the administration there has been resting on its laurels."
Rutgers gay alumni have been wondering the same thing since the Clementi incident, said William Matthews, spokesman for the gay alumni association, which is recognized on the university website.
"We formed to act as role models for incoming LGBT students, to let them know you can be gay and successful and happy," said Matthews, a senior information scientist at Novo Nordisk in Princeton. "But we should have done more. We should have been mentoring those kids."
On Thursday, the same day Clementi's family confirmed he committed suicide, Rutgers gay alumni posted an online petition to be sent to university President Richard McCormick.
The petition said, in part: "Rutgers University has a long-standing tradition of queer student activism - a tradition that has sustained us and made us proud to call Rutgers our alma mater.
"We call on all members of the Rutgers University community to protect, support, and respect its entire student body and in particularly those who are socially marginalized," continued the petition that has already been signed by 30 alumni, several of whom now teach at universities that include MIT, Temple, Columbia and NYU.
On Friday, McCormick released a statement, which noted: "This tragedy and the events surrounding it have raised critical questions about the climate of our campuses."
Adding that students, alumni and parents have suggested Rutgers is "not fully welcoming and accepting of all students," McCormick said he will meet with student leaders of the LGBT community to identify "areas in which Rutgers can better support the needs of this community."
On the campus itself, there will be a candlelight vigil on the steps of Brower Commons on College Avenue in New Brunswick tonight.
Throughout the dining halls, student centers and dormitories last week, echoes of the same conversations could be heard again and again.
Yes, what Ravi did was wrong, but was it criminal? Why doesn't the university have any "safe place" for students who might feel uncomfortable in their dorm rooms? Did anybody actually know Clementi, who had been at school for barely a month? Did anybody ever think that they might be spied on in their own rooms?
"The saddest thing is that there was help for Tyler, but he probably didn't know where to go," said Aaron Schenkel, 18, a freshman who experienced being different growing up in St. Lucia. "It's just so overwhelming to be a freshman anyway, and for Tyler, it seems like his private life came out in the worst possible way.
"I wish I had known him."