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“The fact that it can’t be prosecuted shouldn’t be the measuring stick here. I think people know that it’s inappropriate, know that it’s unacceptable. … I think a message has been sent,” Askey said. The bullies’ “friends know who they are and their peers know who they are, and they know that it’s completely unacceptable in the eyes of this community, this police department, and their peers.” Jamey’s death followed other prominent teenage deaths linked to bullying or intimidation—notably Phoebe Prince, an Irish immigrant in Massachusetts taunted by classmates after she dated a popular boy, and Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman whose roommate is accused of spying on his same-sex encounter via webcam.
30 eSM STAR Tackling School Bullying Former Rutgers student convicted in webcam spying case A former Rutgers University student accused of using a webcam to spy on his gay roommate’s love life was convicted of invasion of privacy and anti-gay intimidation March 16 in a case that exploded into the headlines when the victim of the snooping committed suicide by throwing himself off a bridge.
Dharun Ravi, 20, shook his head slightly after hearing the guilty verdicts on all 15 counts against him.
He could get several years in prison—and could be deported to his native India, even though he has lived legally in the U.S. since he was a little boy—for his part in an act that cast a spotlight on teen suicide and anti-gay bullying and illustrated the internet’s potential for tormenting others.
Prosecutors said that Ravi set up a webcam in his dorm room in September 2010 and captured his roommate, Tyler Clementi, kissing another man, then tweeted about it and excitedly tried to catch Clementi in the act again two days later. About a half-dozen students were believed to have seen the live video of the kissing.
Within days, Clementi realized he had been watched and leaped from the George Washington Bridge after posting one last status update on Facebook: “Jumping off the gw bridge, sorry.” At a courthouse news conference after the verdict, Clementi’s father, Joe, addressed himself to college students and other young people, saying: “You’re going to meet a lot of people in your life. Some of these people you may not like. Just because you don’t like them doesn’t mean you have to work against them.” Rutgers said in a statement: “This sad incident should make us all pause to recognize the importance of civility and mutual respect in the way we live, work, and communicate with others.” During trial, Ravi’s lawyer argued that the college freshman was not motivated by any malice toward gays—a necessary element to prove a hate crime—and that his actions were just
those of an immature “kid.” The defense also contended Ravi initially set up the camera because he was afraid Clementi’s older, “sketchy”-looking visitor might steal his belongings.
The jury found Ravi not guilty on some subparts of some of the charges, but guilty of all 15 counts as a whole.
The most serious charges—bias intimidation based on sexual orientation, a hate crime— carry up to 10 years behind bars each. But legal experts said the most Ravi would probably get all together at sentencing May 21 would be 10 years.
Before the trial, Ravi and his lawyers had rejected a plea bargain that would have spared him from prison. He would have gotten probation and 600 hours of community service and would have been given help in avoiding deportation.
Ravi was not charged with causing Clementi’s death, and the suicide remained largely in the background at the trial, though some witnesses mentioned it and the jury was told Clementi had taken his life.
Prosecutors were not allowed to argue directly that the spying led to his death; defense lawyers were barred from saying there were other reasons he killed himself.
Each bias intimidation charge included five questions. A finding of guilty on any of them made Ravi guilty of the entire charge. The jury issued a split verdict on those subquestions.
It found, for example, that Ravi did not try to intimidate Clementi’s romantic partner, identified in court only as M.B., and that Clementi reasonably believed Ravi was trying to intimidate him because of his sexual orientation. It split on questions of whether Ravi knowingly or willfully intimidated Clementi because of his sexuality.
Clementi’s death was one in a string of suicides by young gays around the country in September 2010. President Barack Obama commented on it, as did talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.
New Jersey lawmakers hastened passage of an anti-bullying law because of the case, and Rutgers changed its housing policies to allow people of the opposite sex to room together in an effort to make gay, bisexual, and transgender students feel more comfortable.
Testimony came from about 30 witnesses over 12 days, including 32-year-old M.B. Ravi himself did not testify, though the jury watched a video of his interrogation by police.
Ravi and Clementi, both 18-year-old freshmen from comfortable New Jersey suburbs, had been randomly assigned to room together, and Clementi had arrived at college just a few days after coming out to his parents as gay.
A string of students testified they never heard Ravi say anything bad about gays in general or Clementi in particular. But students did say Ravi expressed some concern about sharing a room with a gay man.
On Sept. 19, according to testimony, Clementi asked Ravi to leave their room so that he could have a guest. Later, Ravi posted on Twitter: “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” Ravi told police that he watched only seconds of the encounter via computer.
His friend Molly Wei testified that she and a few other students also watched the live stream of the men kissing. (Wei was initially charged in the case but was later accepted into a pretrial program that will allow her to keep her record clean.) Two nights later, Clementi asked for the room alone again. This time, Ravi tweeted: “I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes, it’s happening again.” He also texted a friend about a planned “viewing party” and, two students said, went to friends’ rooms to show them how to access the feed.
However, there was no evidence the webcam was turned on that night. Ravi told police he had put his computer to sleep. Prosecutors argued Clementi himself unplugged the computer.
According to testimony, Clementi submitted a room-change request form and talked to a resident assistant about what happened. He also used his laptop to view Ravi’s Twitter site 38 times in the last two days of his life. He killed himself Sept. 22.
Court: Teens can’t be suspended for MySpace parodies Two Pennsylvania teens should not have been disciplined at school for MySpace parodies of their principals created from off-campus computers, a federal appeals court ruled June 13.
The postings, however lewd or offensive, were not likely to cause significant disruptions at school and therefore are protected under previous Supreme Court case law on students’ rights to free speech, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found.
“Today’s court decision states that you cannot punish students for off-campus speech simply because it offends or criticizes [school officials],” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which represented both students.
However, six judges who dissented in one case said they feared salacious online attacks against school officials would go unpunished.
“It allows a student to target a school official and his family with malicious and unfounded accusations about their character in vulgar, obscene, and personal language,” Judge Michael Fisher wrote in the ruling involving the Blue Mountain School District in eastern Pennsylvania.
In that case, an eighth-grade girl created a MySpace page using an actual photo of the principal with a fake name, and purported that it was posted by a 40-year-old Alabama school principal who described himself—through a string of sexual vulgarities—as a pedophile and sex addict. The internet address included the phrase “kids rock my bed.” “Though disturbing, the record indicates that the profile was so outrageous that no one took its content seriously,” the 3rd U.S. Circuit majority wrote June 13, overturning its own prior ruling. “[The girl] testified that she intended the profile to be a joke between herself and her friends.” In the other case, Hickory High School senior Justin Layshock created a parody that
said his principal smoked marijuana and kept beer behind his desk. The Hermitage School District said it substantially disrupted school operations and suspended him, but the suspension was overturned by a district judge, the appeals panel, and now the full 3rd Circuit.
In a rare move, the full court had heard oral arguments last year after separate threejudge panels issued conflicting rulings in the twin cases.
Such disparities are common around the country as school districts wrestle with how to address online behavior that can range from pranks to threats to cyber bullying.
The New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit has upheld school discipline in two similar cases, but neither has reached the Supreme Court.
35 eSM STAR Tackling School Bullying Supreme Court passes on chance to define students’ online free speech rights The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to take up a set of cases for the digital age— whether schools may censor students who are off-campus when they create online attacks against school officials and other students.
The court let stand the suspension of a West Virginia high school’s “Queen of Charm,” who created a web page that suggested another student had a sexually transmitted disease and then invited classmates to comment.
The court also left alone rulings that said schools could not discipline two Pennsylvania students for MySpace parodies of their principals that the students created at home. An appeals court, following 40-year-old case law on student free speech, said the posts did not create substantial disruptions at school.
Lawyers on both sides were disappointed that it will be at least another year before the high court wades into the issue. Federal judges have issued a broad range of opinions on the subject, which has muddied the waters for school administrators as they consider whether it’s appropriate to discipline students for such online transgressions.
36 eSM STAR Tackling School Bullying “We’ve missed an opportunity to really clarify for school districts what their responsibility and authority is,” said Francisco Negron, general counsel of the National School Boards Association. “This is one of those cases where the law is simply lagging behind the times.” The American Civil Liberties Union expects the Supreme Court to examine the question “sooner rather than later,” according to Witold Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. Still, he is relieved the Pennsylvania students represented by the ACLU have been exonerated after their long legal fights.
“When kids go to school, the parents give up control. But once the kids leave the school, the parents again are the primary custodians and have decision-making authority over those kids,” Walczak said.
With the cases settled, Justin Layshock of western Pennsylvania will receive $10,000 in damages plus legal fees, while an eastern Pennsylvania girl, identified only as “J.S.,” can pursue damages and legal costs.
Layshock in 2005 created a parody that said his principal smoked marijuana and kept beer behind his desk. The Hermitage School District argued that Layshock’s website substantially disrupted school operations. Layshock was suspended, but the suspension was overturned by a district judge and upheld by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.
In the other Pennsylvania case, an eighth-grader in the Blue Mountain School District used her principal’s photograph in a fake profile, described him as a pedophile, and mentioned a sex act. The girl was suspended for 10 days.
“Though disturbing, the record indicates that the profile was so outrageous that no one took its content seriously,” a 3rd Circuit majority wrote last year. But the court was divided 8-6.
Such disparities are common around the country as school districts wrestle with how to address online pranks, threats, or cyber bullying.
In the West Virginia case, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond unanimous
ly refused to reinstate Kara Kowalski’s lawsuit against school officials in Berkeley County.
She claimed her five-day suspension from Musselman High School in 2005 violated her free speech and due process rights.
A new statewide anti-bullying policy that goes into effect July 1 extends rules about student conduct beyond the school yard, holding students accountable for “vulgar or offensive speech” online if it disrupts school.
Although sexual orientation was not an issue in the legal case, the West Virginia Board of Education policy specifically noted that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students are often bullied. That sparked opposition to the policy from certain groups.
Kevin McCoy, president of the West Virginia Family Foundation, said the high court’s ruling is a setback but not a blockade to those who oppose the policy. The group says the policy intrudes on the private lives of children.
“Does this make it a little more difficult for us? A little,” McCoy said. “But it definitely does not close the door to any future challenge.”
Federal action and policy In the last few years, bullying has gone from an almost accepted childhood rite of passage to a national issue warranting immediate attention— spurred by a number of high-profile teen suicides. While federal policies exist to help combat bullying, some state and district leaders say they’re having a hard time enforcing those policies.