A Rutgers University freshman committed suicide this week after two classmates secretly recorded him engaged in a sexual encounter, and then broadcast the video over the Internet.
Tyler Clementi jumped off a bridge to his death, virtually pushed off, frankly, by the sick act of vicious bullies who thought it was fun to exploit a human being for a cheap sexual online thrill.
A 15 year-old Massachusetts high school student named Phoebe Prince recently took her own life after six classmates bullied her relentlessly with non-stop sexually offensive insults levied against her in real-life, at school and online.
A couple of years ago, the mom of a freshman woman at Hofstra University told school officials her daughter was suicidal after she became the target of a vile sexually explicit smear campaign via a "Hofstra"-labeled link set up at a now-defunct website called "juicycampus.com."
When asked to take steps to stop these relentless attacks, school officials often say there is little or nothing they can do because of "free-speech" and because on-line bullying does not occur "on-campus."
For such seemingly educated people, school officials aren't being very smart about this dangerous problem now plaguing our nation's colleges and universities and putting innocent kids at risk for serious harm, and sometimes death.
Let's not wait for another suicide before changing the culture that enables this cruelty to occur with impunity.
ADVICE FOR PARENTS:
Parents can help, even if we can't be there on campus or figure out how to use Facebook, much less monitor the cyberbullies from home.
First, we need to teach our children that the Internet is not just a "rules-free" environment of social interaction. In fact, it's a place where many dangers lurk precisely because it's "rules-free."
A seeming 15-year-old "friend" might actually be a 45-year-old sex offender. Even if a teen "chats" for months with an on-line friend" and feel a strong "connection" -- parents need to help kids understand that it's not real intimacy and that meeting such "friends" in person is a very dangerous idea.
Second, at the first hint of a cyber-bullying problem, parents should call an attorney -- THEN call the school and put everything in writing.
School administrators are more likely to take effective action to stop cyber-bullying if an informed parent knows the law.
Third, if the school won't help, parents can go to court and get a restraining order. Most forms of cyber-bullying, and ALL sexual bullying, are covered by civil rights laws, which means a judge can issue orders granting "equitable" relief, such as requiring the school to utilize available technology to stop cyber-activity, or moving the offending student off-campus.
Fourth, when schools fail to protect students from cyber-bullying, the Department of Education's Office For Civil Rights has authority to force schools to take action under threat of serious financial sanction and other punishments. The Obama administration claims to have a more dedicated commitment to the prevention of sexual bullying on campus than the Bush administration, but under Obama's leadership, the Department of Education has thus far refused to respond to complaints about the cyber-bullying that caused a near-suicide at Hofstra. Rather than addressing the issue and instructing Hofstra to take effective steps to stop sexual cyber-bullying, Obama's Department of Education ducked the issue on procedural grounds.
ADVICE FOR SCHOOL ADMINISTRATORS:
For those administrators who are thanking their lucky stars they don't work at Hofstra or Rutgers, know this:
1. The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that you CAN sanction cyber-bullying notwithstanding "free speech" concerns where the conduct "has caused or foreseeably will cause 'interference with the rights of students to be secure'". Tinker, 1969. The federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals put it more succinctly in 2002: "There is no constitutional right to be a bully”.
2. Any cyber-bullying that impairs a student's ability to participate in education not only CAN but MUST be redressed because federal civil rights laws impose a DUTY on schools to provide "prompt and effective" relief.
3. That the conduct occurs in cyber-space is NO excuse to do nothing. To the contrary, federal courts have ruled that schools MUST act - even if the bullying occurs off-campus - if the bullying:
- is viewed at school
- is posted on a publicly available website at the school
- is the topic of conversation at school
- leads to graffiti at school
- requires faculty attention or on-campus medical/counseling attention
- causes other students to express fear or concern
- is evidence indicating a pattern of similar past activity
- is related to other disciplinary issues on campus
Cyber-bullying is hard to police because of inadequate real-world legal controls and because young people feel free to engage in uncivilized behavior in an on-line environment where civility is not required.
We're not talking about simple meanness. When meanness makes our children feel bad, we teach them how to move on from adversity and hope they become stronger for the wear. But when kids start killing themselves as a solution to bullying, it isn't about meanness anymore. And as hard as it is to believe that young people can be so vicious they would literally push a classmate to suicide, it's time to stop trying to beat back this growing epidemic with education and training programs, and hand-holding ceremonies where we think we're "teaching" kids not to be bullies.
The kids who provoked the deaths of Tyler and Phoebe can never "learn" not to be vile human beings. Their character has been established. And there are countless kids just like them in schools across this country - just looking for a victim to target for their next round of hatred.
Schools can make a big difference - but they won't - unless parents use their financial and legal means to make them give a damn.
Wendy Murphy is a former prosecutor. She is currently advocates for victims rights.