Rutgers case highlights problem of youth killing selves after being tormented over sexuality

By Erin Vanderberg, AP
Thursday, September 30, 2010

Secret sex video linked to NJ student’s suicide

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — The death of a Rutgers University freshman stirred outrage and remorse among classmates who said they wished they could have stopped the teen from jumping off a bridge after secret video of his sexual encounter with a man was streamed online.

Tyler Clementi, 18, jumped off the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River last week. His body was identified Thursday after being found in the river a day before.

“Had he been in bed with a woman, this would not have happened,” said Rutgers student Lauren Felton, 21, of Warren. “He wouldn’t have been outed via an online broadcast, and his privacy would have been respected and he might still have his life.”

Clementi had just started at Rutgers, which bills itself as the state university of New Jersey, and was a talented violinist whose life revolved around music, friends and mentors said.

“Musically, Tyler was destined for greatness,” childhood friend Mary Alcaro, who played in a summer music academy with him, said Thursday in an e-mail to The Associated Press. “I’ve never heard anyone make a violin sing the way he did.”

Ed Schmiedecke, the recently retired music director at Ridgewood High School, from which Clementi graduated this year, called Clementi “a terrific musician, and a very promising, hardworking young man.”

Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, and fellow Rutgers freshman Molly Wei, both 18, have been charged with invading Clementi’s privacy. Middlesex County prosecutors say that they used a webcam to surreptitiously transmit a live image of Clementi having sex Sept. 19 and that Ravi tried to webcast a second encounter on Sept. 21, the day before Clementi’s suicide.

Collecting or viewing sexual images without consent is a fourth-degree crime, and transmitting them is a third-degree crime with a maximum prison term of five years. A lawyer for Ravi, of Plainsboro, did not immediately return a message seeking comment, and it was unclear whether Wei, of Princeton, had retained a lawyer.

A spokesman for the Middlesex County prosecutor’s office didn’t return messages inquiring whether there could be additional charges, and experts diverged on the potential for the pair to face more severe charges in light of Clementi’s apparent suicide.

Parry Aftab, who runs the website WiredSafety, said it’s possible the classmates could be prosecuted for violating Clementi’s civil rights.

“If these kids could get away with one privacy law violation, that would be a sin,” she said.

But former assistant Essex County prosecutor Luanne Peterpaul said such a prosecution was unlikely because the federal government doesn’t recognize sexual orientation as a protected class.

Peterpaul, vice chairwoman of the gay rights group Garden State Equality, said prosecutors might be able to pursue the case as a hate crime if they could establish that the defendants were motivated to act because they perceived Clementi as gay. But that can be hard to prove, she said.

A lawyer for Clementi’s family has not responded to requests for comment on whether Clementi was open about his sexual orientation.

Gov. Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor, said he would let Attorney General Paula Dow decide whether to prosecute two classmates on civil rights charges. But he sent a warning to students who taunt or pull pranks on others.

“You don’t know the feelings of the people on the receiving end of that,” he said. “You can’t possibly know. There might be some people who could take that type of treatment and deal with it, and there might be others, as this young man obviously was, who are much more greatly affected by it.”

His death also stirred outrage at his new school, even if he wasn’t very well known.

“The notion that video of Tyler doing what he was doing can be considered a spectacle is just heinous,” said Jordan Gochman, 19, of Jackson, who didn’t know Clementi. “It’s intolerant, it’s upsetting, it makes it seem that being gay is something that is wrong and can be considered laughable.”

Other students who knew Clement were upset that they didn’t do more to help him.

“I wish I could have been more of an ally,” said Georges Richa, a freshman from neighboring New Brunswick.

“No person should have to endure such shame and humiliation,” said Alcaro, who grew up with Clementi in Bergen County, west of New York City. “I’m disillusioned that in a generation that prides itself on acceptance and tolerance, people can still be so closed-minded and downright hateful.”

About 100 people gathered Wednesday night for a vigil on campus. They lay on the ground and chanted slogans like, “We’re here, we’re queer, we’re not going home.”

Rutgers University President Richard McCormick wrote in a letter to the campus, “If the charges are true, these actions gravely violate the university’s standards of decency and humanity.”

Coincidentally, the university this week launched Project Civility, designed to get students thinking about how they treat others.

Gay rights groups say the suicide makes Clementi a national example of a problem they are increasingly working to combat: young people who kill themselves after being tormented over their sexuality.

On Tuesday, a 13-year-old California boy died nine days after classmates found him hanging from a tree. Authorities say other teens had taunted the boy, Seth Walsh of Tehachapi, for being gay.

Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, said in a statement that his group considers Clementi’s death a hate crime.

“We are heartbroken over the tragic loss of a young man who, by all accounts, was brilliant, talented and kind,” Goldstein said. “And we are sickened that anyone in our society, such as the students allegedly responsible for making the surreptitious video, might consider destroying others’ lives as a sport.”

Mulvihill reported from Haddonfield, N.J. Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Erin Vanderberg in Piscataway, Beth DeFalco in Ridgewood, Colleen Long in New York, David Porter in Newark, Wayne Parry in Atlantic City and Angela Delli Santi in Trenton.

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