It’s nothing new and it’s often brushed off as childish teasing, but bullying is at the center of a national debate following the recent suicides of five young people that were bullied as a result of their sexual orientation, particularly Tyler Clementi, an 18-year old Rutgers University freshman who jumped off the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River on September 22, 2010.
Three days earlier, his college roommate and another Rutgers student reportedly used a hidden camera to broadcast a sexual encounter between Clementi and another man over the internet.
Apparently, the humiliation was too much for Clementi to bear.
Details of Clementi’s death were disclosed by authorities on September 29—the same day that Rutgers University kicked off Project Civility, its two-year, campus-wide project intended to teach the importance of civility.
The project stresses special attention to the use and abuse of new technology. Events scheduled for the 2010-11 academic year include “fireside chats;” a debate exhibition on civility on campus; a panel discussion addressing bullying, hazing and stalking, a panel discussion on technologies and civil behavior; and a program on sportsmanship.
On October 14, President Barack Obama told young Americans during a town hall meeting that the Department of Education recently held a summit to address "how to help set up structures where young people feel safe, where there is a trigger that goes off when this sort of bullying.”
President Obama said that there is nothing to stop schools from setting up “Zero tolerance” policies that say “harassment of any form…is unacceptable.”
Celementi’s bullying-induced suicide was one of five that made headlines in recent weeks, and the deaths have prompted proposals in Congress to stop bullying by establishing guidelines that define it and provide ways to deal with it.
In the past, bullying problems at schools have been handled primarily at the local or state level but the San Francisco Chronicle reports that the pending bills would require K-12 schools that receive federal funding for public safety programs to define bullying as conduct that places people in reasonable fear of physical harm based on their real or perceived identity in regard to race, sexual orientation or gender identity, among other factors.
The bills would also establish a grievance process for students or parents who wish to file a complaint with officials designated by a school.
A third bill expected to be introduced next month by Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey would require colleges and universities to develop campus anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies that cover lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.
“For those of us who work in education policy our focus is making the education case for these bills,” said Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, known as GLSEN.
According to 2007 statistics on crime and violence in the nation’s public schools, 32 percent of students ages 12–18 reported having been bullied at school during the school year, but Clementi’s suicide shows that bullying may be just as rampant on college campuses.
It’s common practice for college students to use Facebook or other social media websites to bully or make fun of their peers. In fact, Clementi’s roommate posted a message on Twitter reading “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.” prior to broadcasting the private encounter online.
During the town hall meeting on October 14, President Obama called the recent suicides of young people that had been bullied “heartbreaking” but added that even though some laws addressing harassment already exist, “the law doesn’t always change what’s in people’s hearts.”
Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.
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