Five years ago, on September 22, 2010, an 18-year-old gay male college student took his life after being cyberbullied by his college roommate in his residence hall.
Today, in his memory, the recently-established Tyler Clementi Foundation is working to end online and offline bullying in schools, workplaces, and faith-based communities.
“The last five years since we lost Tyler have been painful for our family. We would do anything to change what has happened, but as we can only move forward, we are dedicated to our mission of ending all online and offline bullying so that other youth don't have to go through the humiliation that Tyler did,” said Tyler’s older brother James Clementi, who works for the Foundation.
Tyler's death was one of nine known suicides by LGTBQ youth that occurred within the same month. These tragedies drew much-needed attention to the issue of bullying in schools. They continue to serve as a reminder of the importance of research showing that LGBTQ youth, who often experience hostility in school and elsewhere, are three to seven times more likely to attempt suicide than other juveniles. And the rates are even higher for those who are transgender or of color.
The Foundation was established in remembrance of Tyler’s life, and it serves to help meet the needs of victims of bullying, both on- and offline. Two of the Foundation’s initiatives, the #Day1 Campaign and the Upstander Pledge, address bullying at schools. Both provide comprehensive awareness education about bullying prevention, including harassment based on actual or perceived race, color, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or religion.
The Tyler Clementi Foundation has also partnered with Campus Pride to conduct college outreach. Nearly 200 campuses attended a series of national planning webinars for the #Day1 Campaign. Participation in the campaign mandates that when there are circumstances requiring an articulation of what kind of behavior is expected — whether at school or at a new job — the person who is in charge must identify what conduct will and will not be tolerated within a particular space, and that person must receive verbal confirmation that the concept is understood.
Campuses participated in the campaign by engaging students via social media. The LGBTQ Student Center at Kent State University, for example, encouraged students to engage in both campaigns simultaneously by signing the Upstander Pledge — and thus promising to stand up to bullying, provide support for bullied peers, and help combat bullying whenever possible — and promoting it on Twitter and Facebook with the #Day1 hashtag on the first day of classes. Participants read the pledge out loud and encouraged classmates, teachers, and other community members to sign a physical copy. The pledge is also easily accessible online and can be signed at any time.
Many did. On the first day of class this semester, Michelle White, Pre-Engineering Advisor in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, read aloud a statement about tolerance. By doing so, she helped set a tone of inclusiveness and mutual respect — before the semester even started.
In addition to the Foundation’s work this year, there is proposed legislation to help eradicate bullying. The Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act was recently reintroduced in Congress. The bill requires colleges and universities that receive federal student aid funding to enact an anti-harassment policy that explicitly prohibits cyberbullying.
“Lesbian and gay college students are nearly twice as likely to experience harassment when compared with their heterosexual peers, and are seven times more likely to indicate the harassment was based on their sexual orientation. Transgender students are more than twice as likely [as lesbian, gay, and bisexual students] to experience harassment,” said Rebby Kern, Media and Programs Manager with Campus Pride. “Still, today there is no federal requirement that colleges and universities have policies to protect their students from harassment.”
Five years after Tyler’s death, his brother James is committed to promoting change. Alongside partners like Campus Pride, James, his family, and the Foundation continue to help others who have also contended with bullying and harassment.
“I will never be able to have my brother back, but if the Tyler Clementi Foundation can help other youth to see how valuable and worthy they are, then Tyler's legacy will be for progress and love," Clementi said.