Last week, Dharun Ravi was convicted on 15 criminal charges, including bias intimidation; a hate crime. This conviction ends another, though not yet final chapter of an awful incident at Rutgers University that has had reverberations throughout our nation and around the world.
Certainly the convictions have aroused controversy and if newspaper articles and blog posts are any indication, not everyone is in agreement with the verdicts. Some believe Ravi is being unfairly punished for Clementi's suicide; a death he of course did not directly cause-but may have contributed to. Full disclosure: as a child I was viscously bullied throughout elementary and middle school. I was a good student who liked to show off his smarts, but a poor athlete and I was also effeminate-a lethal combination that was almost guaranteed to get a boy scapegoated during the 60's and 70's. So I certainly could understand how someone who was bullied would consider suicide, even though my childhood fantasies were more the murderous kind.
Perhaps this is why I have a visceral reaction when I hear some of the objections over the Ravi conviction. Shortly before the verdict, I was interviewed by NPR and asked if I thought people were being too tough on Ravi. Ravi's lawyer called his actions "stupid kid behavior" an explanation seemingly meant to excuse his behavior and minimize its damage. I have even heard colleagues of mine here at Rutgers espouse theories describing the impulse control sections of 18 year-old brains as underdeveloped which would seem to somehow diminish Ravi's guilt. However, I don't buy it and even question the motivations behind such statements. Kids much younger than Ravi know the difference between right and wrong. His refusal to accept a plea bargain on a lesser charge suggest that he believed he could be found innocent in a trial and therefore was not willing to take responsibility for his actions. Is this once again stupid kid behavior or the consequences of a brain that is not fully mature? Why do we not hear such explanations in the defense of poor Black youth from places like Newark and Camden who commit crimes? Perhaps "stupid kid behavior" and brain development explanations apply only to well-to-do college students who harass gay people..
Shortly after the verdicts an Op Ed piece on cyber bullying appeared in the New York Times stating that "the hate crime civil right statutes are being stretched to go after teenagers who acted meanly not violently" and that "this isn't what civil rights laws should be for". But I would argue (and Webster's Dictionary would agree) that by limiting the term to mean only physical assault, the author is defining violence too narrowly. As a victim of bullying, I can tell you the name calling, alienation, and public humiliation I received was more wounding than the punching and kicking. I do agree somewhat with the writer whereby I am not sure how helpful it would be put Ravi in jail for 10 years. I am no legal expert, but I have heard of people convicted of manslaughter who received lighter prison sentences. As a social worker and psychotherapist, I am a great believer in rehabilitation and redemption--I know people can learn from their mistakes and I hope that Ravi can learn from his.
However, as a bullied gay man myself, I can tell you that substantial punishment is indeed warranted and will send the nation and the world a message that bullying, virtual or live, for any reason including sexual orientation, is wrong. It is too bad it has taken a tormented college student's suicide to get this important message across when there are actions that can be taken to avoid such tragedies. Studies demonstrate that the presence of active, visible student groups on campus is related to lower incidents of anti-gay harassment and less suicidal behavior among gay and lesbian youth. For sure such groups have existed at Rutgers for a long time, but in my opinion we did not do a good enough job making their existence known to incoming students. Last fall, a year after his Tyler's death, Rutgers joined with the Clementi Foundation to give a conference on cyber bullying that was inexplicably silent on the issue of harassment of LGBT persons--thus many of us still have a ways to go in terms of understanding and addressing these issues. It's worth noting and not incidental that the man Clementi had been seeing and who was also video broadcasted felt a palpable hostility whenever he visited his dorm. This raises the question as to whether a toxic, homophobic environment contributed to this tragedy. Ravi's crime, and Clementi's suicide calls upon the Rutgers community, myself included to carefully assess and address what's happening on our campus. Other educators would be wise to assess theirs as well.
Acknowledging and condemning anti-LGBT bullying and disseminating information about accessible supportive LGBT resources are effective ways for faculty, staff, and administrators in middle schools, high schools and colleges to communicate to students that anti-LGBT harassment or bullying of any kind is unacceptable Those of us who work in education need to make sure this information and support is available and that our students know about it. Gays and lesbians (and bisexual and transgender persons) deserve to be able to function in an atmosphere of safety and respect. Ultimately this is good for their mental health and that of everyone else.