Vigils were held throughout the region in the past week following the suicide of an 18-year-old gay Rutgers University student and several other teens who recently took their lives after facing anti-gay bullying.
Students, faculty and staff at Rutgers gathered on the New Brunswick, N.J., campus Sunday night — as did LGBTs and allies in Kahn Park in Philadelphia and Greenwich Village in New York City — to pay tribute to freshman Tyler Clementi, who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge Sept. 22, several days after his roommate broadcast his sexual encounter with a man live on the Internet.
A second candlelight vigil to remember recent victims of teen suicide is scheduled for 8 p.m. Oct. 9 outside of Giovanni’s Room, 345 S. 12th.
Clementi’s body was pulled from the Hudson River Sept. 29. Earlier in the week, his roommate, Dharun Ravi, and Ravi’s friend Molly Wei were arrested on invasion of privacy charges, although the two are not currently in custody: Ravi posted bail and Wei is free on her own recognizance.
Investigators have said more charges could be pending.
“The initial focus of this investigation has been to determine who was responsible for remotely activating the camera in the dormitory room of the student and then transmitting the encounter on the Internet,” said Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan. “Now that two individuals have been charged with invasion of privacy, we will be making every effort to assess whether bias played a role in the incident and, if so, we will bring appropriate charges.”
A hearing in the case has not yet been scheduled.
Clementi’s was the latest in a spate of gay teen suicides across the country.
In September alone, 15-year-old Billy Lucas and 13-year-olds Asher Brown and Seth Walsh also took their own lives, reportedly after facing relentless antigay bullying.
The day Clementi’s body was found, Raymond Chase, a gay student at Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island, hung himself in his dorm room, although it is unclear whether his suicide was related to anti-gay harassment.
“Words do not adequately describe the tragic loss felt across the country for the five promising young individuals who were so isolated and felt so alone and cut off from their peers and society that suicide became an option,” said Charles Robbins, executive director of The Trevor Project, a national LGBT youth suicide-prevention agency.
Talking to youth
Carrie Jacobs, executive director of The Attic Youth Center, said that while the press attention has shined a spotlight on the issue of anti-LGBT bullying, classroom harassment and consequences like suicide are not a new epidemic.
“At The Attic, we hear about the effects of bullying every day,” Jacobs said. “This is not a new phenomenon — gay youth have been bullied as far back as many gay adults can remember. Unfortunately, over the years, numbers of LGBT youth have either been killed or committed suicide, some we know of and many we don’t, and it’s still happening.”
The Attic had a discussion scheduled Oct. 6 with its youth participants and local filmmaker Kelly Burkhardt to address the issue of LGBT youth suicide and find out how the recent events resonate with local teens.
“Nobody is talking to the youth. Nobody is finding out where they are and what they need, and they’re who we need to hear from,” Jacobs said. “In response, The Attic is focusing on working with our youth, finding out how they’re feeling. This impacts them directly and brings up a whole lot for them. Many have been there and some are still struggling. We want to be able to address that by talking with them in a venue where they feel free to speak. It’s important that their voices are heard. So far with all the media attention, we’ve heard the voices of adults, and we need to hear directly from the youth.”
Jacobs noted that while the media exposure the suicides have garnered could create meaningful change, LGBT community members should bolster their support for LGBT agencies that provide direct services to at-risk teens.
“Obviously there are a lot of people out there who are pained and concerned by this and perhaps the media attention will prompt people to be more attentive,” she said. “Perhaps parents will become more attentive to their children who are being bullied or who are bullying, and perhaps schools will take a greater stance on no-tolerance policies. The community needs to support the programs that are working with these youth. Not just The Attic, but so many groups out there need the financial support because they’re really trying to make a difference with these youth on a daily basis.”
New Jersey legislation
In Clementi’s home state, Garden State Equality, the New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention and several other education agencies have been working for several months with two New Jersey lawmakers to press for stricter anti-bullying laws in the state.
Assemblymembers Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D) and Mary Pat Angelini (R) will introduce the “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights” later this month, and the pair said in a joint statement last week that Clementi’s death was “heart-wrenching” and an “unspeakable tragedy” that highlights the need for legislative action.
“We believe our bill will create a new national paradigm for anti-bullying reform,” the lawmakers said. “We can — and must — do better with the resources we have and, with that in mind, we believe our bill will get significant bipartisan support. The education and lives of our students hang in the balance.”
Following news of Clementi’s suicide, New Jersey Sen. Shirley Turner introduced legislation that seeks to heighten the penalties associated with invasion-of-privacy crimes that involve videotaping and distributing images of someone in an intimate setting.
Ravi and Wei are charged with third-degree counts, which carry a maximum prison sentence of five years and/or a $15,000 fine, but Turner’s bill would upgrade similar privacy violations to second-degree crimes, for which the offenders could serve up to 10 years in prison and pay a $150,000 fine.