It appears that the courts are sticking to their resolve to tie serious consequences to bullying that ends in suicide, at least in the high-profile case of Tyler Clementi. Earlier it developed that Tyler’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, was being charged with 15 different counts, and could spend years in jail if convicted of the most serious ones. While it was initially unclear whether Molly Wei, Ravi’s friend who was involved in the crime of broadcasting Tyler’s private information over the Internet, would be charged, it now appears that she will have charges against her dropped in exchange for testifying against Ravi.
That doesn’t mean she’s completely in the clear, however – she’s still required to complete 300 hours of community service, undergo cyberbullying counseling, and take classes about “how to respect people of different backgrounds.” And that’s just for being party to the bullying. It sends a strong message about the court’s opinion on the gravity of this matter, and their willingness to make an example of the people involved in this case in the hopes that it will keep anything like this from happening again.
It seems like they’ll have to hope that the example works, though, because we aren’t hearing many other stories about bullies being brought to legal justice after the tragic rash of suicides in the fall. Most likely, this is because other cases are much harder to prosecute – many of them involve young children, who are at best tricky to prosecute for crimes like the ones Ravi is charged with, like “invasion of privacy with bias intimidations.” For instance, gay 15-year-old Lawrence King was shot to death by 14-year-old Brandon McInerny in February of 2008; as of last week, McInerny had yet to go to trial despite universal consensus that he is responsible for the murder of one of his classmates. In part, this is because of an ongoing debate about whether he should be tried in adult or juvenile court. There is now a “Seth’s Law” being created in memory of 13-year-old suicide victim Seth Walsh, but it seems unlikely there will be any convictions of individuals as a result of his death – there may not have been a single indivdual at fault, and rather a large group or ‘herd mentality.’
In the Tyler Clementi case, there is no such issue; the people involved are clearly identifiable, were over 18, and the fact that all the ‘bias intimidation’ in question took place over the internet means it’s trackable and provable in court. The ‘cyberbullying’ aspect gives it extra pertinence, as cyberbullying leading to suicide has been a much-discussed epidemic among straight teens as well. As such, prosecutors are lucky in that harsh consequences seem to be in the works for a crime that’s usually viewed as a nebulous social problem, to be corrected by parents or school authorities.
It’s possible that the example being made of Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei will have an impact on college campuses – with today’s extremely competitive and extremely expensive university environment, many students are loath to risk their academic standing or chances of graduating. But what will this case do on the playground or in the high school cafeteria? The majority of bullying of gay teens doesn’t happen in the form of a streaming video, and isn’t necessarily recorded in tweets and texts like the ones Ravi tried to erase. This case may bring some level of justice to Tyler Clementi’s untimely death, and will hopefully make college campuses a safer place, but ultimately there may be a limit to how much difference you can make in a classroom from the distance of a judge’s bench.
Homepage thumbnail image via Frank H. Conlon, Associated Press