Jamey Rodemeyer’s Bullies Won’t Be Charged Criminally — What’s Our Best Next Step?

The September 18th suicide of 14-year-old gay teenager Jamey Rodemeyer hit the community hard. It even attracted the attention of his idol, Lady Gaga, who began a crusade in his memory to curb bullying through stricter federal legislation, labeling it “a hate crime.”

A few weeks later, Jamey’s computer and cellphone were sent to Forensics by the Amherst, New York police, to determine if any of Jamey’s tormenters could be prosecuted. Yesterday, police in Amherst announced that it had been determined that these offesive comments couldn’t be considered criminal, and therefore no charges could be filed in this case.

Detectives on the case also interviewed Jamey’s family, friends, and peers, via which they uncovered five “bullying episodes” Jamey had endured during his short time as a freshman at Williamsville North High School. For the record, Williamsville North High School began classes on September 6th. Taking weekends into account, this means Jamey Rodemeyer endured five “bullying episodes” IN NINE DAYS OF SCHOOL. It’s unsurprising the teenager, who’d recorded an upbeat “It Gets Better” video earlier that year, wasn’t too optimistic about his future.

Three students were identified as “targeting” Jamey in school (one of whom hired a lawyer after Jamey died) but they weren’t the same kids leaving hateful messages on formspring or tumblr.

Police Chief John Askey told the press that Jamey “was exposed to stresses in every facet of his life that were beyond what should be experienced by a 14-year-old boy.” Askey expressed disappointment that no prosecutable offenses had turned up, and said part of the problem was that “the victim is dead and unable to help prove harassment or other charges that might have been filed.”

“I would like to have seen something we could have done from a prosecution standpoint,” Askey told reporters. “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.”

Jamey’s father: “We’re not satisfied, but we somewhat expected this outcome. That’s why we’ve taken on a mission trying to get laws passed that will make people accountable.” Askey confirmed that the bullies “know who they are” and know that their behavior is “completely unacceptable in the eyes of this community.”

Jamey lived just outside of Buffalo, where activists have begun gathering to take a stand against bullying. The local NBC affiliate assembled a panel to discuss the issue, including “people from all sorts of different groups that have exposure to bullies; from students, to parents, to teachers, counselors, administrators, and even the legal world.” You can see the videos from that panel on their website, which also contains links to heaps of stories about Jamey, cyberbullying, and anti-gay bullying. On October 25th, Jamey’s school held a Parent Forum on teen depression and suicide awareness.

It’s difficult to quantify what kind of impact community acceptance might make. After Jamey’s death, his bullies continued bullying him on his facebook page. Historically, teenagers have a pretty consistent record of categorically NOT doing what parents and teachers tell them to do.

Some are pushing for the introduction of “Jamey’s Law” and encourage you to sign the petition here to make bullying a criminal offense. But is legislation really the answer? I’ve always thought so. It couldn’t hurt, after all. It would send a message.

But lately I’ve been questioning that idea. Is this where we need to put our time and energy, or is it just a band-aid to make everyone FEEL like things are getting better? Is this is being handled how everything is handled in America — make it illegal, hold an assembly, and then if something goes wrong somebody can sue somebody? I’m especially concerned the crime of “bullying,” with its relatively abstract definition, could become yet another area of school discipline in which racial bias will lead to some kids “getting away with it” while others are excessively and enthusiastically prosecuted.

Although educators and administrators absolutely need extensive training and awareness programs about LGBTQI students and gay bullying in particular, many studies have shown these initiatives to be largely ineffective where kids are concerned. Most schools already have some kind of anti-bullying policy. I agree that discrimination against people based on sexual orientation or gender identity needs to be a part of every single one of those policies.

But federal bullying laws tend to address personal/political characteristics of the situation rather than specific behavior — and laws already exist to cover many of the bullying behaviors, such as harassment, sexual assault, physical assault, stalking, extortion, intimidation and sexual harassment.

I guess what’s frustrating to me — and I say this as a person who has been reading stories about gay kids getting bullied almost every day for two years — is that this is one area in which progress is stagnated. Rates of bullying haven’t gone down even as gay people have made progress in other areas. Teenagers are a difficult bunch, and it doesn’t help that the US Education system is a colossal disaster.

Furthermore, there are actual ways that are almost guaranteed to make things better for gay kids, but a lot of them are going to take a lot more time and energy to put into practice and it’s going to require more than just the legislature to get involved. These things aren’t just about criminalizing bullies but making persecuted students feel better about themselves. Sebastian spoke about this at length during Spirit Week – “How can students feel safe – or even BE safe – at school when parts of their identities are ignored and even denied 8 hours a day, for 13-14 years?”

jamey needed tami taylor

Lasting change, I think, would be proactive rather than punitive. It would involve recognizing LGBTQI people in the curriculum, in the manner of California’s FAIR act. It involves more GSAs, which have been historically proven to improve the social environment for students. It involves stopping the censorship of gay materials in libraries and online. It involves making prom and homecoming open to same-sex couples. It involves fostering environments where teachers feel comfortable being “out.”

There are bigger things, too, systemic issues that damage more than just LGBTQ students. These issues will only get worse as government makes more education cuts rather than raising taxes on the 1% – cuts which always disproportionately affect the students in the most need of help. Teachers need smaller class sizes so that they can develop stronger relationships with their students. Schools need more funding for the arts — in many schools, Drama Club was always an unofficial GSA. We need to do everything we can to ensure our good teachers aren’t so exhausted and bitter by the end of the day that they’re just out of fucks to give. We need more counselors — people these kids can go to for support, especially if they don’t have any at home.

What if Jamey had seen a picture of Harvey Milk on the wall in his History classroom? What if he’d had one gay teacher? What if his straight teachers had been trained to understand the unique social needs of LGBTQ students? What if he’d connected with an older student who encouraged him to join the GSA? Would he still be with us? Would he still be with us if bullying was illegal?

Will we ever stop asking these questions. Will we ever have an answer.

Avatar of Riese

Riese is the 32-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York City, and now lives in The Bay Area. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are!

Riese has written 1743 articles for us.

27 Comments

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    Do real, actual people think that these bullies now know their behavior is “unacceptable”? UNACCEPTABLE?! That is not enough of a word to cover what has happened here! You can’t handle the act of bullying a child into suicide and then continuing to mock his memory with a kid-gloves word like “unacceptable”!

    The word you’re looking for is “horrifying.”
    The word you’re looking for is “disgusting.”
    The word you’re looking for is “heartbreaking.”

    And even then I don’t know if you could get the bullies to understand the horror of their actions with words alone. I don’t know what anyone could do to make them grasp that before they scar someone else. But wagging a finger in their direction and saying “Inappropriate!” is not going to cut it.

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    As the ‘resident lesbian’ and president of the GSA at my high school, I make sure that kids always have a table at lunch, always have a friend to talk to, and always have support. I don’t ever want this to happen again.

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    I think the answer to how to stop this is mulitfaceted. It has to start at home. What kind of values are taught? Kids have to be taught from a young age a)diversity of people b) expressing feelings-this is a biggie c) it is wrong to hurt people with words, actions etc. because it hurts. This sounds so simple but how can legislation or rules at school work if you have little individuals who really don’t care about other people’s feelings, etc. And anti-bullying has to start very young, in kindergarten and continue throughout high school. I don’t want my kids to either be the recipients of bullying or to be bullies themselves. So far so good.(Son is only 5 though!) I was bullied thoughout much of my grade school for my name and my size (I have an unusual name and was very tall for a girl). All these suicides from bullying are so sad to read and want to be part of anything to stop this.

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    Riese, thank you for writing this! I was sobbing by the time I reached the end of this article. I was also really angry that the actions of the people Jamey Rodemeyer encountered were so harmful to his being that he felt suicide was the only way to find peace.

    As a person who is childless and completely removed from the k-12 school system, the only thing I know I can do to effect change is live openly. If I choose to exist as openly queer, hopefully it’ll positively influence at least one person’s perception of the LGBTQI community and then they can pass that positive perception to one more person and so on.

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    I don’t know if bullying can ever be illegal because some schools would then take really progressive stands on it and then some schools would do nothing (basically they’d do what they do now. And it’s so hard when so much of what kids learn and hurt people with comes from their parents/school itself/everything around them. I think the only thing we can do now is make sure they know theyre not alone, work to get more queer/trans people in the media and force all schools to allow gsa’s and teach queer issues.

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    I just wanted to say that there was recently a suicide at my old high school. This girl hung herself last week due to bullying becasue she was a lesbian. I really think you should look into this suicide cause the school is really trying to cover their own asses becasue they sent out a letter to all parents saying that her death was not caused by bullying. They are totally lying and being jerks. I know firsthand that bullying has been going on in that highschool and they never do anything to stop it.

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    This is a heartbreaking turn of events, but a really well-written article.

    One thing I’d like to also point out is the role of principals, vice/assistant principals, and other administrators. For instance, many teachers might want to stop bullying but might lack the direction or support of their higher-ups. Additionally, the vice principals or those in charge of discipline are often involved in punishing bullying behavior–so if they haven’t been trained to notice or deal with homophobic or transphobic bullying, kids might get away with it. And if the school district doesn’t have clearly set-out policies regarding bullying and what constitutes it, the staff and teachers may not have a real recourse.

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      THIS! I got picked on a LOT in middle school, and a little in high school. I had teachers who knew about this and wanted to do something, but they couldn’t do anything as long as the higher-ups didn’t want to. There was one guy who constantly disrupted class and picked on me, he got sent to the principal’s office almost every class period but he would always get sent back about fifteen minutes later. What needs to be done is give teachers power to punish bullies.

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    “Is this where we need to put our time and energy, or is it just a band-aid to make everyone FEEL like things are getting better?”

    This is DEAD ON. To me, this type of legislation encourages mere Tolerance of LGBTQ people and completely misses the point. Something is clearly wrong, and its deeper and far more complex than anything a law could fix.

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    Something that rarely gets talked about in conversations about bullying is that it does NOT stop after high school. Workplace bullies exist – and what’s worse, many of them thrive in the dog-eat-dog corporate world. I’ve been the victim of workplace bullying on more than one occasion, and it’s just as crappy as the bullying I endured when I was young.

    Where do we think those bullies get their start? I doubt they come out of nowhere. I’m guessing many of them were bullies when they were kids, too.

    So to me, the question becomes – how do we stop them becoming bullies in the first place? That one’s much harder than passing a law and having an assembly – that’s something we need to have a huge cultural shift to combat.

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      (Oh, and for the record – that workplace bullying was not because I’m gay. One I suspect was partly based on the fact that I was a young woman, but my sexuality didn’t enter into it at all. But the same goes for people who bully others for being LGBTQ.)

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      I think figuring out how to help the bullies is something that definitely needs to be discussed as well. That five-year-old kid that’s calling names on the playground *learned* that somewhere. Bullies definitely need to be held accountable for their actions, but we need to find a way to keep our kids from becoming bullies in the first place. Allowing kids to act that way isn’t just harmful for their victims; it’s a disservice to them as well, because they think that they can go through life and solve their problems by bullying others.

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        The thing is, bullies don’t always “learn” it somewhere. A lot of kids are just jerks, they bully because it’s fun or because it’s a “group activity” with their friends and they want to fit in. There’s rarely any complicated psychology to it, I got bullied by all kinds of people. (my dad was the Spanish teacher and I got picked on by some of his dumber students, as if calling me names would improve their grade)

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    Making bullying illegal would actually be dangerous to victims. Why? Because many schools that don’t handle bullying apropriately and accuse and punish the victims for bullying instead. Cyber bullying is safer to prosecute because there is actual hard evidence but in real world bullying its the victim vs the bully/ies and the teachers. Many schools tacitly encourage bullying because they’re homophobic/racist/etc themsevles or because they think its a way of straightening out weird kids and making them be normal.

    Instead we need the curiculum changes, we need teachers trained to deal with these incidents better, we need diversity training and for there to be penalties for teachers who display homophobic etc behaviour.

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      I was coming to make a similar comment, but you said it just about perfectly. When I was in grade school the only time the principal intervened in bullying was to pull me aside to yell at me because I “needed to stop acting homosexual because it was disruptive” and because apparently in Canada it’s hugely offensive to tell someone, “that thing you just said was racist, please don’t say things like that”.

      I agree with all the changes you suggest. I think there has to be better training for guidance councilors as well, and specific avenues for students to take in reporting homophobic/racist/bigoted behavior from teachers.

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    i’m disgusted. if they identified three classmates that attacked him at school, why couldn’t they find some way to at least hold them accountable? obviously they had some kind of evidence/ eyewitness testimony to implicate them in the first place. the only thing i can think of for his family to do is to slap a wrongful death lawsuit on some of these kids families. then maybe the parents will finally teach them that they need to keep their mouths shut and leave people the hell alone when they’re in school.

    and for all those kids who were celebrating jamey’s death in front of sister at a school dance….WHAT THE FUCK? how disrespectful can you get? how were they not censured or corrected by any adults there? where were the chaperones? where were the parents?

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    Wanted to share one more thing that occurred this weekend on this topic. In our house, the bad words are “ugly” or “stupid”. We’ve trained our son that this is so – The other so called bad words(fuck, shit, etc) are allowed at home only. However this weekend when shopping, the bagging clerk was an adult who had Down’s. My son said out loud to him, “You have creepy eyes.” This was an amazing Down’s person as he started playing with my son and turned it into a game. Afterward I had a talk with my son and explained even though he didn’t mean to hurt anyones feelings, just because that person’s eyes were different, didn’t mean he was creepy. Then I explained that everyone is different, he has 2 Mommies as opposed to 2 Daddies or a Mommy and a Daddy. This is my small part to being part of the solution

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    That’s disgusting. Bullying is the same as harassment and they should be treated the same under the law. If I mocked my coworker every day, insulted them, called them names, physically harassed them, not only would I get fired, I’d probably get in trouble under the law. Why is it any different when it takes place in school and the harassers are minors?

    I think something that should also be done, TEACHERS NEED TO STEP IN. You’re always told to “tell a teacher” if you’re getting bullied, but that’s useless because the teachers never do anything. I understand that they can’t punish based off “he said this, she did that” but they should at least keep an eye on suspected bullies.

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    I feel really hopeless that I’ve been able to do nothing he didn’t need death he still had quite a life for themselves I think I could be friends with him but even there it is too late for

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