Beyond Awkward Silence

The Clementi case shone a national spotlight on cyberbullying. But it also showed what can happen in the most extreme situations of poor communication between roommates.

March 20, 2012

The case of Tyler Clementi ignited a national debate about the prevalence and consequences of cyberbullying and homophobia. In New Jersey, Clementi’s suicide led to the toughest anti-bullying law in the country (to which some colleges are struggling to adhere). And in that state and elsewhere,  institutions are modifying their student codes of conduct to prohibit such behavior.

So student affairs officials closely watched the trial of Clementi’s former roommate, Dharun Ravi, who on Friday was convicted on charges of committing a hate crime, invasion of privacy and bias intimidation. Ravi faces up to a decade in prison for his actions leading up to and following Clementi’s suicide: he used a webcam to spy on Clementi kissing another man in their dorm room, tweeted about it and goaded other students to watch, and set up another (ultimately failed) viewing for students days later.

Clementi had struggled with whether to confront Ravi about the tweets and the webcam, as documented in a recent New Yorker review of the case. But their relationship from the beginning had been strictly formal – they never spoke, just lived in the same room. Nothing happened until a few days after the first incident, when Ravi sent Clementi a long, almost-apologetic text message: “I’ve known you were gay and I have no problem with it…. I just suspected you were shy about it which is why I never broached the topic.”

That was five minutes after Clementi had posted to his Facebook page: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”

The tragedy speaks to many current hot topics of student affairs, perhaps most clearly the limitations in policy of preventing harassment, the need for inclusive campus environments, and how to define and protect privacy in the age of social media. But it also shows what can happen when one of the most age-old new-student problems -- poor roommate communication -- goes unaddressed.

“Any time with college students, especially roommates, when you place them together you have two individuals with different perspectives, backgrounds, interests, but also communication skills,” said Matthew M. Martin, a professor and chair of the communication studies department at West Virginia University. “When push came to shove…. their inability to talk to each other face-to-face, in a non-hostile manner, possibly played a role in the suicide.”

In the close-quarters, sometimes high-tension living environment that is college housing, proper communication may be even more crucial than in other living situations. And these days colleges must not only foster a positive housing culture, but develop roommate agreements and other programming to help students get to know each other outside the social networking sites where incoming freshmen form their first impressions.

“It seemed that there was not a respect between the two individuals to get to know one another better, and to understand that taking pictures of someone and video of someone without their consent has far-reaching consequences that were not even understood at the time,” said Alma Sealine, director of housing at Case Western Reserve University and president of the Association of College and University Housing Officers - International. “I think we are all very well aware of social networking and the role that social networking is playing in individuals getting to know one another, but the value of face-to-face communication is still there. And it is very important for our staff to be able to work with students on, how are they going to communicate face-to-face, to resolve issues and get to know one another?”

Communication may be more important -- and more difficult -- when one roommate isn't comfortable with the sexuality of the other. The horror that Ravi showed about what Clementi was doing in their room appeared to be related to Clementi's having a male partner.

"This trial’s conclusion will not end the daily torment and harassment of LGBT students on college and university campuses across the nation. College and university professionals have an obligation to recognize the crucial role and responsibility they have in creating safer environments for LGBT students,” Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride (a group that advocates for gay students), said in a statement. "Concrete policy implementation put into immediate practice is necessary – constant work that includes listening to and including the voices of LGBT students and taking decisive and proactive steps to respond to their needs before tragedy occurs, not afterward."

Internal policies on privacy and bullying have existed for years, and freshman orientation typically includes information on those topics as well as social media, said Kevin Kruger, the president of NASPA: Student Affairs Professionals in Higher Education. What’s changed recently is that colleges are working more directly and intensely with students.

“The whole notion of privacy and harassment and bullying, and talking through those issues with students in the context of social media has increased in the last three years, I think,” Kruger said. “It’s always an issue for residence hall staff to manage the relationships between roommates. It’s always an issue. And they try to do that as proactively as possible.”

Colleges are doing everything from round table discussions to policy reviews to role-playing exercises to help students understand appropriate use of social media and to feel comfortable talking to their roommates when issues arise. And of course, perhaps most important of all, many colleges are going to greater lengths  to make sure students know what to do when talking doesn’t work, and they need support or want to report someone. (Clementi was frustrated by what he perceived as a lack of support by Rutgers.)

About two-thirds of students in his recent research said they’d been cyberbullied, said Kent Smith, vice president for student affairs at Ohio University. (That is to say, they’ve been repeatedly harassed through some form of multimedia outlet, be it Facebook, YouTube, or an online forum.) Even as the issue has entered the public spotlight, it still often gets overlooked or written off, Smith said. But that may be changing.

“A lot of people don’t know where to start, and a lot are not addressing the issue very directly, but I do think this is one of those cutting-edge conversations that will take place and is taking place,” he said. “If they don’t have something in the way of policy development, they should be doing continuous education with young people about what is or what isn’t cyberbullying or bullying, and what the programs are [to address it].”

Even among those who are concerned about cyberbullying on campuses, there tends to be confusion or disagreement about where to draw the line between distasteful behavior and conduct violations. Ohio’s policy doesn’t address cyberbullying specifically, but could do so under two of its top-level code of conduct offenses: causing mental or bodily harm, or misusing the IT network.

Most students regret having bullied a peer online, Smith said.

“When you’re in the heat of the moment and that’s the culture you’re used to, it seems very easy to hit the ‘send’ button and say something you would not have said if you were with that person,” he said. “They’ve utilized technology so much, in terms of the social media sites, to where I believe it’s hurt their ability to effectively communicate face-to-face.”


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