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09.30.10

Was It a Hate Crime?

Prosecutors are considering additional charges against two Rutgers students involved in an bullying incident that may have contributed to the suicide of their classmate, Tyler Clementi.

Prosecutors are considering additional charges against two Rutgers students involved in a bullying incident that may have contributed to the suicide of their classmate, Tyler Clementi.

Update: Clementi's family released a statement on Friday, noting: "We understand that our family’s personal tragedy presents important legal issues for the country as well as for us."

For Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, the two Rutgers students under criminal investigation following the suicide of fellow student Tyler Clementi, the future now hinges on a critical question of motive. The day after Clementi's body was found in the Hudson River, Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan and Rutgers University Police Chief Rhonda Harris announced that they are searching for "probable cause to bring additional charges" against Ravi and Wei.

"We will be making every effort to assess whether bias played a role in the incident,'' Kaplan said, an indication that if bias is found, Ravi and Wei could potentially be open to federal charges for hate crimes. Expert lawyers not affiliated with this case declined to speculate on what those charges could be, citing the obscurity of some Supreme Court decisions, but a Facebook page calling for manslaughter charges had sprung up by Thursday, with 7,488 fans at the time of this posting.

“Right now, we do not know exactly what happened in those few days.”

The freshmen have already been charged with two counts each of invasion of privacy, carrying maximum sentences of five years in jail, after Ravi allegedly videotaped and transmitted footage, at least once from Wei's dorm room, of Clementi in private sexual encounters. Clementi discovered his roommate had videotaped him and became distraught, then committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.

Felony rap sheets were not part of the plan for Wei and Ravi, high school pals who arrived at Rutgers from cabbage-patch communities in central New Jersey: Ravi from a computer technician's family in a comfortable home in a leafy Plainsboro cul de sac, and Wei from the household of a Princeton Junction chemical engineer working on patents with pharmaceutical giant Bristol Myers Squibb. The families of both appear to be engaged citizens, campaign contributors on both sides of the aisle, who sent their children to one of the best public high schools in New Jersey.

West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North, from which Ravi and Wei graduated this year, educates around 1,500 kids from diverse backgrounds typical of that part of the state: recent immigrants, second-generation Americans, and families, like that of 2003 graduate Kevin Walling, with deep local roots.

"I don't know [Ravi or Wei] and I don't know what they were thinking, but this kind of taunting would not have been condoned or accepted," said Walling, who was class president one year, and remembers only openness and congeniality among his student body. "In my time, we had kids who were openly gay. It isn't a problem."

"I wasn't out at the time, but I never thought it was the kind of place where that kind of energy would be supported," he said.

Walling eventually became the director of communications for Equality Maryland, the state's lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender advocacy group. His grandfather, Don Walling, had been a dean of education at Rutgers, and his father was also a graduate of the college. Though Walling did not attend Rutgers himself, he suggested Rutgers would have had the same tolerance for any other student differences as his high school did.

Christian Oliveira, a senior double-majoring in political science and sociology at Rutgers, who is affiliated with some LGBT groups, agreed.

"This is not the norm at Rutgers; it's a very supportive institution," he said. "There's a social-justice office, LGBT groups, gay fraternities … It's a wonderful place to be if you're gay. It's tragic that someone felt that this was a solution to the problem."

Oliveira expressed concern that people are rushing to a conclusion about what role Ravi and Wei played in the lead-up to Clementi's death; he does not know any of the three students personally.

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"Right now, we do not know exactly what happened in those few days," he said. "Right now, people are shocked more with the act, rather than the reaction. People want to mourn as a group." To that end, there will be a campus-wide vigil on Sunday night at 7 p.m.

Michael LaSala, director of Rutger’s master's program in social work and the author of Coming Out, Coming Home: Helping Families Adjust to a Gay or Lesbian Child, sees things in more black-and-white terms.

"Young people of [Clementi's] age are completely vulnerable to suicide," said Lasala, who also did not know the three students. "I could understand how growing up gay, finally coming to terms with your sexuality, and then having your sexuality used to humiliate you could be absolutely devastating. I'm a gay man myself, and I can't imagine what it would have been like to have my sexual behavior filmed and then broadcast."

He also said, "I think this is an issue of gay-bashing, and I think that is getting lost. People are focusing on tools of social media being abused, or saying, 'Let's look at lack of civility.' But if the things that we heard were posted on the Web were true"—and here Lasala offered the caveat that everyone is innocent until proven guilty—"there's a strong homophobic-heterosexist aspect that I would argue is as hurtful or destructive as bricks or bats."

The university is unable to comment officially until the investigation closes.

The hate-crimes bill that President Obama signed into law last year may come into play soon enough in a Middlesex County courtroom, and several others in the country. In the past two weeks, three other teenage or adolescent boys have killed themselves as a result of gay taunting.

"Billy Lucas, 15, Seth Walsh, 13, Asher Brown, 13, and Tyler Clementi, 18, all faced violence from their peers simply for being perceived as LGBTQ and each young person reportedly committed suicide rather than endure the daily violence of anti-LGBTQ harassment, bullying, and hate," said Thursday's statement from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. The bill was prompted by the case of Matthew Shepard, a young man who was beaten to death in a hate crime in 1998. People have already begun to make connections between Shepard's death and the recent rash of deaths, hoping that perhaps there is a silver lining.

"It's so critical that President Obama signed the hate crimes bill," Walling said. "We didn't have lots of protections on the books. But it's so startling that this on the rise. What's most surprising, though, is that this is generational—this is younger people doing this to young people."

Claire Howorth is the Arts editor at the Daily Beast.