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Rutgers Suicide Sparks Federal Legislation

Rutgers Suicide Sparks Federal Legislation

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U.S. senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey said Wednesday that he planned to introduce legislation that would require colleges and universities that receive federal funds to adopt policies that protect all students from harassment, including cyberbullying, in response to the suicide of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi.

Lautenberg announced the draft legislation, which he intends to introduce when the Senate returns to session in November, at a town hall forum on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, where he told hundreds assembled that colleges have a responsibility to prevent the "terrible degradation of spirit and humanity" that led Clementi, 18, to jump from the George Washington Bridge last month after his roommate secretly filmed his intimate encounter with another man and live-streamed it over the Internet.

"Right now there is no federal law to require colleges to protect students from harassment and bullying and what I want to do is change that, and the bill I'm introducing will require that colleges and universities who are recipients of federal funds must adopt a code of conduct that prohibits harassment and bullying," he said.

In addition, according to his office, the bill would require schools to have in place a policy to deal with complaints and incidents of harassment. The bill would also create a competitive grant program at the U.S. Department of Education for colleges and universities to establish programs that prevent harassment and bullying.

Lautenberg is a cosponsor of the Student Nondiscrimination Act introduced by Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, which would expressly prohibit public elementary and secondary schools from discriminating against students based on sexual orientation and gender identity or ignoring harassment based on those characteristics. Schools found to violate the law could lose funding from federal departments and agencies.

In remarks to reporters, Lautenberg indicated that he wanted the legislation to honor the memory of Clementi, an idea he shared in a private phone call with the young man's mother, Jane, earlier in the day. Joe and Jane Clementi have not spoken publicly since the tragedy except to issue a brief statement last week calling for compassion.

"I suggested that we would like to do something to commemorate his young life," said Lautenberg. "I told her that I was going to write something to do that. I don't want to go into whether or not she said she liked it or didn't like it. That was the nature of the call."

During the town hall, presented by Garden State Equality with help from national and local organizations, legislators including New Jersey's junior senator, Robert Menendez, grappled with the convergence of old concerns and new elements presented by the Clementi case, which unfolded on social networking sites like Twitter. Many highlighted the need to strengthen existing state and federal laws.

"Tyler Clementi's tragic death represents the destructive mix of technology and intolerance and how vulnerable we all are in the digital world," said Menendez, who suggested that responses could include an attempt to strengthen the Matthew Shepard Act, the landmark hate crimes legislation signed by President Barack Obama last year.

"We have been thinking about how, since we already have the framework and the fundamentals of a law that exists, how can we enhance it to make it more powerful," he said afterward.

Students and parents at the town hall relayed stories of harassment in New Jersey, where state assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini, a Republican from Ocean Township, plans to introduce a bipartisan anti-bullying and harassment bill on October 14 with state assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, a Democrat from Bergen County. The state enacted an anti-bullying law in 2002, and added electronic communication in 2007.

"Basically, it puts teeth into the existing laws," said Angelini of the new proposal. "This adaptation to that will really give clarity to what the original bill is all about, and it also puts the onus on the schools and the school administration for hopefully never letting a situation like we experienced happen ever, ever again."

None of the speakers at the town hall was personally acquainted with Clementi, who had only attended Rutgers University for three weeks before taking his own life on September 23. Another forum Thursday night in his hometown of Ridgewood is expected to include perspectives from people who knew him.
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