Jane Clementi talks about her son, his roommate’s trial, the Tyler Clementi Foundation and ‘Tyler’s Suite’
Bullying killed Tyler Clementi in 2010. Now his family hopes that a nine-piece choral movement written about the gay teen can help stop the bullying that drove him to take his own life.
Tyler’s mom, Jane, and his oldest brother, James, will be in Dallas March 24-26 for performances by the sixth and final gay men’s chorus to stage Tyler’s Suite.
Former Turtle Creek Chorale Artistic Director Tim Seelig worked with the Tyler Clementi Foundation to put together the choral movement. Seelig’s San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus premiered the suite with only eight movements.
Each section of Tyler’s Suite was written by a different composer. Wicked and Pippin composer Stephen Schwartz, who met the Clementis at a fundraiser, helped oversee the project, and after the work premiered in 2014, he decided to add a ninth movement.
“Stephen thought there needed to be one more movement,” Jane Clementi explained. “He added ‘Brothers’ Voices.’”
Jane said this isn’t a biography of her son, but is instead an exploration of the events, emotions and people that created Tyler’s experience.
Pamela Stewart is the librettist for Tyler’s Suite. She also was librettist for the Sing for the Cure song cycle written for the Turtle Creek Chorale in conjunction with the Susan G. Koman Foundation. Jake Heggie — known in Dallas for Moby Dick and Dead Man Walking that he wrote for the Dallas Opera — is among the composers.
Tyler Clementi was only three weeks into his freshman year at Rutgers when he realized his roommate had live-streamed him in a sexual encounter with another man in their dorm room. After reading an ongoing series of tweets about it, Tyler went to New York City and jumped off the George Washington Bridge.
Tyler came out to his mother just before leaving for school, but had come out to his oldest brother James, who is also gay, at the beginning of the summer.
Jane said when Tyler came out to her, she was surprised in a way that she wasn’t when James came out.
In high school, Tyler hadn’t been bullied, at least as far as his mother knows. So, she said, he was unprepared for what happened when he went to college. She called his first few weeks of school the perfect storm. Away from home for the first time, away from his friends and away from his usual support system, he was overwhelmed.
“That’s a high risk time,” she said.
Jane said Tyler’s roommate live-streamed him twice. The second time, Tyler realized the camera was on and disconnected it.
But then he logged into Twitter and realized that people across the Rutgers campus and friends of his roommate on campuses across the country had watched the video — and were commenting.
Tyler kept logging into Twitter and the comments continued. He couldn’t escape. The more he read from his online tormentors, the more frantic he became.
With traditional bullying, Jane said, after the incident is over, the person can go someplace safe. Cyber-bullying, she said, is different — it’s harder to escape.
Wherever Tyler had his laptop, he was being attacked. And he repeatedly signed into Twitter to follow the barrage of attacks against him.
After Tyler died, police immediately launched an investigation. His roommate, Dharun Ravi, was eventually tried and found guilty of bias intimidation, invasion of privacy, hindering apprehension, cover-up and tampering with evidence — a total of 15 criminal charges. In some categories, multiple charges were filed, because M.B., the man in the room with Tyler, was also a victim.
In 2012, Ravi could have been sentenced to up to 10 years in prison; prosecutors wanted five years. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail but actually served only 20 days. He was also given three years’ probation, a $10,000 fine, 300 hours of community service and ordered to attend counseling on cyber-bullying and alternate lifestyles.
Ravi’s conviction has been appealed and a three-judge panel heard arguments in February.
Ravi wants his record expunged. His attorneys claim there was no connection between the webcam spying and Clementi’s suicide. A decision is expected in four or five months.
Prosecutors have also filed an appeal, wanting a dismissed charge re-instated and Ravi retried.
Tyler died during a spate of suicides happening among gay youth and some who were presumed gay who had fallen victim to anti-gay bullying in the fall of 2010. Among them was Zach Harrington, 19, who committed suicide after attending a Norman, Okla. City Council meeting where he heard a barrage toxic comments against a proposed LGBT History Month resolution.
That same fall in Houston, 13-year-old Asher Brown committed suicide a day after a bully threw him down a flight of stairs at school and no one came to Brown’s aid.
Montana Lance, 9, of The Colony in Denton County hanged himself in the nurse’s bathroom after being bullied in class. His mother claimed she was told to keep her mouth shut about the incident.
Jon Carmichael, 13, from Joshua, just south of Fort Worth, had been bullied for years before taking his own life earlier that year.
Soon after Tyler’s death, his family started The Tyler Clementi Foundation. At first they weren’t even sure which problem they would address, since Tyler’s story was multi-faceted.
Trevor Project and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention addressed suicide well. But bullying wasn’t the primary focus of any national organization, so that became the mission of The Tyler Clementi Foundation.
“I wasn’t in a good place,” Jane said of that time, “but a large number of people were interested.”
So Jane’s cousin, an attorney, drew up the papers to form a non-profit organization. New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg heard of their efforts and intervened, making sure they had their non-profit status within weeks.
“I’m not sure how it all fell into place,” Jane said.
The organization evolved and is doing great things now, she said. And that’s helping her with her grief.
“One of the things we learned is in 80 percent of cases, there are bystanders,” she said.
In Tyler’s case the prosecutor called up many witnesses through the 13-day trial. “Nobody reached out to say stop,” Jane said. “Nobody reached out to Tyler to see if he was OK.”
The Tyler Clementi Foundation’s goal is to turn people into upstanders — people who step up and take a stand when they see bullying happening. To that end, the foundation sends representatives to visit high schools, colleges and workplaces.
Its Day 1 Campaign has been an effective initiative aimed at putting an end to bullying before it starts. Based on research, it helps schools and workplaces express what behaviors are expected and involves confirmation from students or audience that they understand.
New York Law School held its first Tyler Clementi Internet Safety Conference in October. They now offer legal counsel to victims of cyber bullying.
The foundation formed partnerships with Columbia University and Rutgers to do research. The Tyler Clementi Center at Rutgers is creating new programs and approaches to address issues faced by young people, especially as they transition from home to college.
On the federal level, the foundation is working to pass the Tyler Clementi Anti-Harassment Act. But Jane said she’s been frustrated by its slow progress.
It’s stuck in committee in the GOP-dominated Congress.
In addition, the foundation wants to put an end to bullying in faith communities. Jane — who said she comes from an evangelical background but believes that no religion teaches hate as a value — said she would like to put a stop to the kind of religious exemptions that would allow bullying — like the so-called religious freedom laws working their way through many state legislatures now.
Tyler’s Suite will be performed by The Turtle Creek Chorale at 7:30 p.m. March 31-April 2 at City Performance Hall, 2520 Flora St. $37-55. TurtleCreekChorale.com
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 18, 2016.