College responds to Rutgers suicide

PRISM sponsored an Oct. 11 candlelight vigil in memory of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi and other LGBT youths who died in the past month after being harassed. (Tom O’Dell / Photo Editor)

On Sept. 22, Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi ended his life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge, just days after his roommate and an acquaintance broadcast a video of him in an intimate situation with another man. Although Rutgers is about 45 minutes north from the College, Clementi’s death hit some close to home.

“Personally, when I found out, I was devastated,” said Elizabeth Ehret, senior music performance and women’s and gender studies major and president of PRISM, the College’s support/activism group for LGBT students.

Clementi was not openly gay and although his exact motivations for suicide are still unclear because no note was left (save for a Facebook post saying “jumping off gw bridge sorry”), many are saying it was “cyberbullying” that pushed him.

Clementi was not alone. Ehret noted that there have been “at least six” other recent deaths among LGBT youth as a result of bullying or others’ intolerance. Included in this string are Raymond Chase, an openly gay Johnson and Wales University student who reportedly hung himself, Asher Brown, a teenager in Texas who shot himself after being harassed at school, Seth Walsh, a California youth who hung himself, and another in Illinois who died after being brutally beaten.

“There are so many LGBT youth who commit suicide on a regular basis,” she said. “But you don’t hear about them because, I don’t want to say it, but there are more typical ways (than jumping off the George Washington Bridge) to go.”

In addition to a vigil for Clementi held Monday in the Alumni Grove and the Spiritual Center, PRISM recently held a meeting about Clementi’s suicide in order to help students cope. Ehret said she knows of several cases in which the same thing almost happened at the College.

Students who face such issues need not go through them alone. In addition to the support offered by PRISM, the College’s Counseling and Psychological Services has employees who are specially trained to help students deal with crises. CAPS workers highly encourage students to seek help.

“I hope this sad turn of events will spark extended discussion of all the issues involved so that no other family need go through what the families of all these students, and the two students who survive, now face,” Larry Gage, a licensed psychologist, clinical coordinator and associate director of CAPS, said.

Counseling sessions are held by trained staff and kept confidential, but students can also take an online mental health screening through the CAPS website for self-evaluation. More information can be found at www.tcnj.edu/~sa/counseling/index.html.

As of now Dharun Ravi, Clementi’s roommate, and Molly Wei, who allegedly helped Ravi, have not been charged with any sort of hate crime but nevertheless face up to five years behind bars for invasion of privacy and creating pornography without the participants’ permission. Other charges are involved, but none are as serious as those many across the nation are asking for.

While acknowledging that she is not a lawyer, Ehret said the evidence she can see points to bias.

“To see that what they did, a lot of it was getting a laugh out of the gay boy,” she said. “I don’t think they would have necessarily gotten the same enjoyment out of it or would have necessarily gone to those lengths to publicize it had (Clementi’s partner) been a girl.”

She went on to say that PRISM members often hear homophobic and anti-gay comments at the College on a regular basis, and that she personally hears them a few times a week. October is LGBT history awareness month and PRISM accordingly has a series of events planned, including film showings, visits from writers and even speakers from MTV’s “The Real World.” Most recently was the “Coming Out Monologues,” held in the Library Auditorium last week.

Although such events are designed to help bring about awareness and improve campus tolerance, they have brought out some prejudice, according to Ehret. She said she heard negative comments regarding the “Coming Out Monologues” advertisement in front of the library.

Although she doesn’t think anyone should be forced to come out (Clementi reportedly said prior to his death that he would probably never come out), Ehret also said she adheres to the “Harvey Milk philosophy.”

“People aren’t going to learn to accept gay people unless gay people out themselves and show we’re really just the same as everyone else,” she said.

When asked what can be done to prevent cases like Tyler Clementi’s, Ehret said that she is a firm believer in education.

“People need to be more accepting and it comes down to education,” she said. “People need to be taught about culture differences as being nothing but differences, not something that makes one better than another.”