Clementi family become advocates after suicide

AP News
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Posted: Sep 21, 2014 3:36 PM
Clementi family become advocates after suicide

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (AP) — Tyler Clementi's family could have stayed silent after he killed himself.

It could have, understandably, hid from the spotlight and attention thrust upon it when he jumped from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate's webcam captured him kissing another man inside their Rutgers University dorm room.

But four years after his death, the Clementis have used the pain they still feel every day to encourage acceptance and eradicate bullying.

"We could have retreated," said Clementi's father, Joseph, who with his family founded the Tyler Clementi Foundation. "We didn't want to see this kind of thing happen to other kids and have it affect other families the way it affected ours."

Just weeks into his freshman year, Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22, 2010. His roommate, Dharun Ravi, served 20 days in jail after being convicted of bias intimidation, invasion of privacy and other crimes.

The Clementi foundation raises awareness of bullying and cyberbullying, particularly in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Its initiatives include building support for LGBT and vulnerable youth through partnerships and legislative advocacy, as well as having family members speak to different organizations and groups to encourage more "inclusive environments."

One of its key initiatives is turning bystanders into "upstanders." Too often, Joseph Clementi said, people witness bullying but don't do anything about it. Using his son's case an example, he said that if just one person had stood up and said something, it could have made a difference.

"Nobody actually stepped up and supported Tyler in his time of need," said Tyler Clementi's brother, James.

The foundation already partnered with Rutgers to launch the Tyler Clementi Center, which works within the school and with outside organizations to study young people in the digital era. But it hopes to become a national voice and "thought leader" on bullying issues, Joseph Clementi said.

Tyler Clementi's mother, Jane, gave the keynote address last year at a small conference of Christians on LGBT issues, telling the gathering she had left the conservative church she had attended before his death. She also took part in a panel at the Washington National Cathedral last October with Judy Shepard, whose son Matthew was killed in Wyoming in 1998. Matthew Shepard's name is on the expanded federal hate-crimes legislation to cover crimes motivated by bias against gays, lesbians and transgender people.

Members of Clementi's family have also spoken at several universities and companies on LGBT issues and, last year, walked across the George Washington Bridge with other advocates to raise awareness about bullying.

Clementi's death, along with a string of other suicides in 2010, raised awareness of the impact of bullying by associating specific stories with the issue, said Seth Adam, director of communications for GLAAD, an LGBT advocacy organization.

Before 2010, Adam said, LGBT bullying wasn't a major talking point. The conversation after Clementi's death ignited an expansion of LGBT bullying awareness and mixed with a larger culture shift that allowed other LGBT issues to gain momentum, he said.

But James Clementi said the cultural shift isn't happening fast enough. The foundation continues to hear from those who suffer from harassment, he said.

"When young people are in so much pain that they literally want to die," he said, "the change that we're talking about is happening at too slow a pace."