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Posted at 2:37 PM ET, 10/ 1/2010

Tyler Clementi and all of the bystanders

By Valerie Strauss

What about the bystanders?

Where were the people who knew what had happened to Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi and did nothing to help when he learned he had been secretly recorded while having sex with a man in his dorm room and the images were broadcast over the Internet?

Clementi jumped off a bridge after this occurred. His roommate, Dharun Ravi, as well as fellow Rutgers freshman Molly Wei, both 18, have been charged with invading Clementi’s privacy.

Middlesex County prosecutors in New Jersey say the pair used a webcam to surreptitiously transmit a live image of Clementi having sex Sept. 19, and that Ravi tried to webcast a second encounter the day before Clementi’s Sept. 22 suicide.

The death sparked a public discussion about the dangers of social media and the need for stronger legal penalties for cyber-bullying. The last time there was so much public discussion of the topic was after the suicide last January of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince after she was the victim of bullying and cyber-bullying; six young people were arrested on charges including criminal harassment, violation of civil rights with bodily harm, assault, stalking and statutory rape.

We like to talk about getting tough when tragedy happens.

What we don’t like to talk about after the shock of the tragedy fades is what parents and schools should have done years earlier to create a climate in which kids don’t do mean things to each other, or, if they do, in which there are other young people who recognize the wrong and step in to stop it.

And we certainly don’t like to talk about how most schools today are so focused on narrow academic objectives that they, as Malcolm Gauld, an expert on character education and president of Hyde Schools wrote in this post earlier this year, “actually fuel many of the problems we profess to want to solve.”

Bullying is not a small problem. Government statistics show that at least a third of students ages 12-18 report being bullied during the school year. And the consequences can sometimes be life-long.

More than 40 states have some sort of law that makes bullying illegal, yet there is no enforcement and the harassment of students by their classmates remains common.

Schools hold assemblies on character development, and promote “words of the month” -- respect and trust are two favorites -- but kids know that schools and a lot of parents are obsessed with test scores and grades and everything else takes a lesser importance.

Such important work should be a priority of the Education Department, but, alas, there is no billion-dollar competition for states to help schools implement comprehensive anti-bullying programs.

Such programs -- the ones that evidence shows work best to reduce bullying -- include every child and every adult in the school building, and teach all kids when and how to intercede in an incident to help a victim without getting hurt themselves. And kids can learn how not to be victims.

It isn’t easy work, and the results can be slow to come, but the issue is one that schools shouldn’t ignore. Parents shouldn’t either.

I keep wondering about the kids who knew what was happening to Tyler Clementi and did nothing to step in to help him. Perhaps it may have made a difference to him, perhaps not.

The crime is in the not trying.

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By Valerie Strauss  | October 1, 2010; 2:37 PM ET
Categories:  Bullying, College Life  | Tags:  bullying, clementi suicide, cyberbullying, dhraun ravi, gay suicide, invasion of privacy, molly wei, phoebe prince, rutgers university, student suicide, tyler clementi, tyler suicide  
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Thank you for your column. This is the fourth recent suicide due to bullying. I hope those involved will be held accountable for their actions. There has always been bullying but with the Internet it casts a much wider net. We need to teach students not only how to use technology but the ethical use of it.

The bystanders? I am reminded of a novel called The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. A lynch mob hangs three innocent men. The novel explores the idea that when we see something like this and take no action, we are as guilty as those who did the lynching.

Posted by: Jutti | October 1, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

This tragedy, I believe, has complex and deep roots.
The web camming was the final step. I suspect there are long lasting and unresolved family issues, known only to a few.
The grieving family will have to comprehend and accept this, no matter what legal actions take place.

Posted by: rcarrigan187411 | October 1, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse

I keep wondering about the kids who knew what was happening to Tyler Clementi and did nothing to step in to help him. Perhaps it may have made a difference to him, perhaps not.
They are not kids but young adults.

And stop blaming them as there are many young adults that will step in and are disgusted at some of the behavior that many parents believe is normal.

There are many parents out there that believe that their male children should be aggressive and in reality bullies, and there are many mothers are out there that believe their girl children can be mean spirited to other girls. One mother acutally took part with her daughter in one case of cyber bullying.

In New Jersey the defendants will face 5 years in prison.

In cases of cyber bullying there still is no direct national criminal penalties. Forget the classes at the schools and let Congress enact a law about cyber bullying with penalties. Is it really any different than harassing or threatening someone on the telephone.

As for the schools we do not need more lectures to students in regard to bullying. Instead we need schools and local communities that take action. With some local schools there are local laws that parents have to appear in court when their child has too many unexcused absences.

Let us stop with this nonsense that the schools are the answer and not the courts. It is the law and courts that set the norm for our behavior. Let parents know that they may have to appear before a local judge and spend thousands for a child psychologists and you will see a different attitude in parents and their children.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 1, 2010 5:19 PM | Report abuse

What about the absolutely appalling "normalness" that suicide has acquired? What the accused are alleged to have done was inexcusable and for this they should be punished to the full extent of the law. But why has suicide become such a commonplace response and why aren't the experts and columnists pushing programs and groups to look at this?

This was a young man who was in an Ivy league school -- an accomplishment in a fiercely competitive climate. I cannot fathom, with all the adversity he had to have faced up to that point in his young life, him having thrown all of this away over such a thing. The tone of the "cit2mo" posts (not yet formally attributed to him) in the days before his death were normal; they did not sound despondent. I am not seeking to blame him or his support system -- but bullying has been around forever (and no, I'm obviously not condoning that). It's such a tragic, absolutely senseless loss, over people who weren't even worth his losing sleep over, much less his life.

In these same recent days, another young man committed suicide here in Texas, at the University of Texas. This came and went with NOTHING beyond glowing reviews from risk management experts about how well the campus had managed the "crisis." We have become so callous, having seen so much incredible violence since Columbine, that we're truly relieved that the gunman "only" took his own life.

It seems that every other week, there's another stunning tragedy involving a suicide or a murder-suicide. Many of these involving children -- even more tragic.

The crisis in all this is that we no longer value human life, not even our own. This is the crisis that must be addressed.

Posted by: DallasReader | October 1, 2010 5:52 PM | Report abuse

The scary thing here is the precedent that you can materially contribute causes for someone to commit suicide and run no risk of being prosecuted for it. It's opening quite a back door for outright murder.

Posted by: james0tucson | October 1, 2010 5:54 PM | Report abuse

"The scary thing here is the precedent that you can materially contribute causes for someone to commit suicide and run no risk of being prosecuted for it. It's opening quite a back door for outright murder."

Good grief.. There's no hope, your society would be one where nobody is accountable for their actions. If someone kills themself, it is THEIR OWN DOING. :facepalm:

Posted by: scoran | October 1, 2010 6:37 PM | Report abuse

Two comments. First, for a change I agree with bsallamack: They are not kids. Neither are the ones who riot and overturn cars after a football game. At one point, 15- and 16-year olds who wanted education beyond eighth grade approached teacher on their own, formed study groups, and were called "adult students." When did 18-year-olds become "college kids"?

Second, I have noticed a total lack of concern for privacy in students. I didn't know most of my teachers' first names, and only knew if they were married or had children if they used their families as an example in class. Today, I am constantly asked by the students where I substitute, "Do you have any kids? Why not? What do you do after school? Which sport team do you like? What's your favorite TV show?" When I told one student her question was about a private matter, she said, "Boy, you're in a bad mood."

I suspect that the students with the webcam are surprised at the outcome--both that Mr. Clementi was so upset and that the law can actually do something to them.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | October 1, 2010 8:49 PM | Report abuse

I am opposed to forcing college students to have roomates. The roomate I had in my first semester spent 80% of his time in the room. He slept all day while I was in class, chewed his toenails in bed, and just laid in bed watching TV until breakfast. After he dropped out that semester. I was assigned a total freak sophmore with too many allergies in his existing dorm, who followed me everywhere, watched me while I slept, answered the phone as me, and did all sorts of weird things.

I ended up sleeping on friends' floors or in the library just to avoid the room.

This sort of thing just seals it for me though. No forced roomates.

Posted by: staticvars | October 2, 2010 12:30 AM | Report abuse

staticvars (and others who feel the same way): there is a simple solution. (Two really, but paying for a private room is pretty costly.)

If you live near a four-year college and don't have a career in mind that would make one college outstanding (like MIT or like studying journalism at Columbia), commute to the college and live at home. Or attend a community college for a year, work very hard and get excellent grades, and then transfer to a four-year college as a sophomore, when you can live off campus and can rent an apartment by yourself or at least choose your own roommates. Don't forget that learning to live with a roommate you have differences with is cited as one of the "benefits" of living on campus. (Like who besides military members or college students ever has to live with anyone he dislikes?)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | October 2, 2010 11:01 AM | Report abuse

I just discovered that Tyler Clementi alerted Rutgers of the problem before his suicide.

This should have set off alarm bells at the school and there might have been even action by the school that might have prevented this suicide.

Apparently a dorm monitor was informed.

A policy should be in place that any student can speak to a responsible adult at the school instead of simply a dorm monitor. The first question a dorm monitor should ask is if the student wants an immediate adult member of the school staff or the problem is something that the dorm monitor can handle.

Dorm monitors should be not seen as the individuals to handle all problems but as the individual to provide information to set up immediate contact with a responsible member of the school staff when a student desires this in regard to a problem.

I can easily think of many actual incidents where a dorm monitor should simply be used to set up an immediate contact with a responsible member of the school staff without the dorm monitor being informed of the problem.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 2, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

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