Rutgers death adds to campuses' concerns over social media

Freshman killed himself after dorm sex video was posted on the Internet by other students, authorities say

September 30, 2010|By Laura Vozzella and Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun

History professor Gay Gullickson opened her class on the Industrial Revolution on Thursday with a few words about a different revolution — the digital one — and its role in a tragedy on another college campus.

A Rutgers University freshman committed suicide after his roommate and another student posted video on the Internet of him in a sexual encounter with another man, authorities say.

"I wanted to tell them two things," said Gullickson, who teaches at the University of Maryland, College Park. "One was, if they felt like terrible things were happening in their lives, things they couldn't cope with, if they felt suicidal, to find somebody to talk to. The other thing I said was, not do something so stupid and so hurtful. Don't do what the roommate had done.

"Kids, students — maybe not all students — seem to have no sense that things that they're putting on the Internet could be hurtful to themselves or to others," Gullickson said.

The suicide of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi and the arrest of two students charged with invading his privacy have shaken students, faculty and administrators at colleges in Maryland and across the country. On campuses where students routinely hear, and ignore, warnings against "over-sharing" online, faculty and administrators are looking for new ways to get that message across.

"In an instant, this thing can become so public that you're willing to take your life for it," said Lee Calizo, student life director at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "They think there's something that's fun and games for them that becomes this life-altering thing for the other person.

"The challenge for colleges and universities is trying to get students to slow down half a second to think about what it is before they hit 'send' or 'public.'"'

Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi, and a friend of Ravi's, Molly Wei, are accused of using a webcam to film and transmit footage of Clementi, a promising music student who jumped from the George Washington Bridge last week after learning of the posting. They have been charged with two counts each of invasion of privacy.

Each faces a maximum five-year sentence on the charge of transmitting the footage over the Internet. The New Jersey attorney general's office is reviewing the case to decide whether to prosecute it as a bias crime, which would double the maximum penalty on that count to 10 years. Ravi faces additional privacy-invasion charge related to collecting the images.

A few years ago at the Johns Hopkins University, "in the early stages of Facebook," a student used social media to out a gay student, university spokesman Dennis O'Shea said. The student who did the outing faced "serious sanctions" from the university, O'Shea said.

"It's unbelievable that stuff like that still happens," said Connie Calderon, a senior economics major at Hopkins and co-president of the Diversity Sexuality and Gender Alliance. "It kind of takes public humiliation to a whole new level.

"In the past, it was something that was really just word of mouth," she said. "Here, it can really take on this new level. Social media has its benefits, but it also has its negatives. It's really up to the responsibility of the users. If you are going to use the Internet to publicly humiliate another student, it's really just not worth it. It's just despicable."

During orientation for new students at Hopkins, the university addresses all forms of harassment, O'Shea said. As part of those discussions, students are told that "it is inappropriate to harass people about disclosing information that they have kept secret, including issues of sexuality."

"It hasn't been a major part of our orientation but it's certainly something that we bring up to students," O'Shea said. "Any time something like this happens, it's a good time to take a fresh look at what you're doing, and I'm sure they will do that."

UMBC has tried to get that message across to students during freshman orientation, with a program that mixes age-old advice — don't ask the professor whose class you've just skipped, "Did I miss anything?" — with 21st-century tips, like watch out for Facebook.

"We do these video clips where we show students doing different things, posting stuff to a Facebook site," said Calizo, the student life director. "'Here are some pictures of me in social scene, at a party. And I got sick.' The next clip is walking into a career center and asking for a job.

"What you post is accessible to people and to future employers. I don't think students are thinking about those things when they are posting and in the moment."

In addition cautioning students about posting embarrassing material about themselves, they are warned not to do that to others.

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