Warren Blumenfeld: What we learned from the Tyler Clementi tragedy

A Guest Editorial
By Warren Blumenfeld

Warren Blumenfeld (Credit: Iowa State University)

Friends described Tyler Clementi as a gentle, kind, and sensitive person who was an accomplished violinist at an early age. Tyler was awarded a music scholarship at the prestigious Rutgers University, and he was looking forward to his four years at Rutgers and to a shining career. On September 22, however, that great potential ended when Tyler took his life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. He was only 18 years old.

Tyler’s roommate, Dharum Ravi and another Rutgers student Molly Wei, both 18 years of age, face charges of invasion of privacy for allegedly tormenting Tyler by using a webcam to secretly record (and live stream on the internet) Tyler engaging in sexual activities in his room with another male student. Dharum tweeted to the over 150 of his followers: “I saw him making out with a dude.” And then more recently, “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes, it’s happening again!”

While bullying and harassment have long been problems for young people in our nation’s schools at every level, the advent of advanced information and communication technologies have now allowed this abusive and destructive practice to extend to virtually all aspects of a person’s life.

What has come to be called “cyberbullying,” like “face-to-face bullying” (also termed “real life” bullying), involves deliberate and repeated aggressive and hostile behaviors by an individual or group of individuals intended to humiliate, harm, and control another individual or group of individuals of lesser power or social status. Cyberbullying involves information and communication technologies such as Internet web sites, e-mail, chat rooms, mobile phone and pager text messaging, and instant messaging. Cyberbullying has increased exponentially as new technologies are released.

Our study, (PDF) 2010 State of Higher Education for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People, for Campus Pride (Rankin, Weber, Blumenfeld, & Frazer) included 5,149 participants (LGBT students, faculty, staff, and administrators) representing over 2,000 campuses in all 50 states. We discovered that LGBT students, faculty, and staff remain at significantly higher risk, compared with their heterosexual and gender conforming counterparts, for harassment on our colleges and universities. Participants attending unwelcoming and “hostile” campuses reported lowered interest in remaining at their current campuses and discouraged future students from attending. They also experienced lower educational outcomes and more negative identity development issues of self esteem, and emotional, mental, and physical health.

The majority of participants discussed the overt acts, as well as the subtle microaggressions (as one participant termed, the “death by a thousand tiny cuts”) creating an uncomfortable and emotionally and physically unsafe environment.

Cyberbullying appeared among the various forms of harassment and intimidation experienced by participants in our study. According to one participant who defines herself as a lesbian, “Mostly people say some offensive things on an anonymous internet forum linked to our campus. There was also an incident recently in which a professor of color here was racially profiled by our Public Safety.”

Participants also warned that a popular (now defunct) website, “Juicycampus.com,” is the worst thing that has EVER happened to our college campuses.” Creators of this website publicize it as “….synonymous with college gossip, and is more popular than…could have ever expected. We’ve expanded to more than 500 campuses across the US, and have more than a million unique visitors coming to the site every month.”

For students; colleges and universities serve as their homes away from home. Faculty, staff, and administrators have chosen colleges and universities as their workplaces to practice their craft. All have a right to live, learn, and work at institutions that not only are welcoming but are also actively working to ensure their emotional and physical safety.

Our comprehensive research has conclusively exposed the inequities, and the possible best practices we propose have shown proven results. Though it is unfortunately too late to prevent Tyler Clementi’s agony and suffering at the hands of his tormentors, we encourage all schools to expand their efforts and to appreciatively raise the discourse in working to secure the safety and the equity for all people, including our LGBTQ students, faculty, staff, and administrators. In this way, colleges and universities may more fully reach their mandate of providing the best quality education and working environment for all members of the campus community.


Warren J. Blumenfeld, Ed.D., is Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa specializing in Multicultural and International Curriculum Studies; & Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Studies. He is Co-Editor of Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States; Co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice; Editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price; Co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life;  Co-editor of Butler Matters: Judith Butlers Impact on Feminist and Queer Studies; Author of AIDS and Your Religious Community; & Co-Researcher & Co-Author: 2010 State of Higher Education for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People.

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