Tyler Clementi loved his dog, Max. He loved music, vacations at the Jersey Shore, and bicycling. He even taught himself to ride a unicycle while playing his violin.
That was the Tyler his parents knew — a warm and cheerful boy the whole family cherished.
But everything changed in September of 2010 when Tyler became a victim of cyber-bullying as a freshman at Rutgers University.
Tyler’s college roommate, Dharun Ravi, used a webcam to secretly live stream Tyler’s date with a man in his dorm room. Ravi and Molly Wei — using the hidden webcam pointed at Tyler’s bed — watched a few seconds of Tyler kissing his date. Ravi then announced on Twitter there would be a viewing party for a second live showing.
When Tyler learned he had been spied on in his dorm room, he complained to the university and asked for a roommate change, but he never said anything to his family. At 8:42 on the night of Sept. 22, 2010, Tyler posted a simple message on Facebook: “Jumping off the G.W. Bridge – sorry.”
His body was found in the Hudson River seven days later, and Tyler became a national headline that sparked a national discussion about bullying.
The last thing on his computer before he left for New York were posts of people making fun of him and making jokes about him.
“Tweeting was inviting the whole world to come in and watch what should have remained a very personal and private encounter,” his mom, Jane Clementi, said this Wednesday as she discussed Tyler’s death with a room packed full of high school students. “Tyler must have been humiliated in front of his new peers. He might have felt ashamed.”
“He felt alone and then he made a drastic decision, a bad choice,” she said of Tyler’s decision to commit suicide. “We’d love to be able to go back, but there is nothing we can do. We can move forward though and work to change people’s minds and actions.”
Through the Tyler Clementi Foundation, Tyler’s family has launched a new campaign called #Day1 to prevent bullying, harassment and intimidation.
Jane and her oldest son, James Clementi, discussed their mission to stop bullying with more than 70 student leaders at the Corner House Student Leadership Institute at Princeton University this week.
Corner House, a Princeton nonprofit, promotes the health and well-being of Princeton area young people and their families as they confront substance abuse and other emotional issues. The agency focuses on prevention, education, and treatment programs. Student leadership programs train peer leaders who serve as positive role models and help lead substance abuse prevention efforts at Princeton High School, Princeton Day School, the Hun School and Stuart Country Day School.
Gary DeBlasio, the executive director of Corner House, saw the Clementi family talk about Tyler’s death and their new initiative to prevent bullying on CBS news this June. He was so touched and impressed by the talk that he invited the family to speak at the agency’s student leadership retreat, a three day intensive program that prepares student leaders for the upcoming school year with team building activities, leadership skills development, and substance abuse prevention education.
For Jane and James, the drive from Ridgewood to Princeton was an emotional one Wednesday as the five year anniversary of Tyler’s death nears. The trip meant passing by the exit signs for Rutgers University, which triggered all sorts of emotions, they said.
As they discussed Tyler’s death and the aftermath, a hush fell over the room. The students appeared to be hanging on every word. When students were asked to raise a hand if they ever experienced or witnessed bullying, more than 25 percent of the hands went up.
Tyler’s mom said than 3.2 million students identify as a victim of bullying each year. She also talked about harassment on sports teams, in fraternities and sororities, and in the workplace. Surveys have found that 50 percents of adults have seen or experienced bullying or harassment in the workplace, she said. People are bullied because of their appearance, their race, their sexual orientation, their physical handicaps and other differences.
Bullying, harassment and humiliation leave physical and emotional scrars, and bullying can also be a factor in truancy, substance abuse and suicide, she said. People who are bullied sometimes deal with the emotional pain by drinking, having unprotected sex, or cutting themselves.
“It’s not just kids will be kids or boys will be boys,” she said. “The emotional and physical scars can last for life. People often suffer in silence.”
Bullying goes beyond verbal abuse. James Clementi talked about cyber-bullying and showed the students a website that tracks the number of times words like “faggot” are used on Twitter each day. This week “faggot” was used on Twitter more than 50,000 times. Unlike in-person bullying, cyber-bullying means possibly being contacted or mentioned ant time.
“With social media and texting, there is no escape,” he said. “The bully is always there, posting things.”
Tyler checked his Facebook account 59 times within a 24-hour period after his roommate tweeted the link to the video, his mom said. He became lost in the world of social media.
“Tyler spiraled out of control,” she said. “He lost touch with reality.”
Adding to his humiliation and sense of isolation, no one reached out to him at the dorm to express sympathy. Tyler’s mom thinks about how his fate could have been different if someone in the dorm reached out to him and said “I’m here for you. Everyone is not against you.”
About 80 percent of the time where someone is bullied or harassed, bystanders witness the events, she said.
The #Day1 campaign is calling on people to be “upstanders” instead of just bystanders — to speak up, take action when they witness bullying or harassment, and report unsafe or unhealthy behavior.
#Day1 consists of a declaration and pledge that can be downloaded at www.Day1Campaign.com.
The Clementi family hopes schools, clubs, and other groups will take the #Day1 pledge to be upstanders. Students at Rutgers University will be asked to take the pledge at the opening ceremonies this fall.
When asked by James Clementi whether students in Princeton feel safe speaking up about bullying, one high school student raised her hand and said the Corner House program provides a safe space for discussing such issues openly.
“I’m glad you have an outlet,” James Clementi said. “I wish there had been a group for Tyler like this.”