Rutgers death adds to campuses' concerns over social media

History professor Gay Gullickson opened her class on the Industrial Revolution on Thursday with a few words about a different revolution — the digital one — and its role in a tragedy on another college campus.

A Rutgers University freshman committed suicide after his roommate and another student posted video on the Internet of him in a sexual encounter with another man, authorities say.

"I wanted to tell them two things," said Gullickson, who teaches at the University of Maryland, College Park. "One was, if they felt like terrible things were happening in their lives, things they couldn't cope with, if they felt suicidal, to find somebody to talk to. The other thing I said was, not do something so stupid and so hurtful. Don't do what the roommate had done.

"Kids, students — maybe not all students — seem to have no sense that things that they're putting on the Internet could be hurtful to themselves or to others," Gullickson said.

The suicide of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi and the arrest of two students charged with invading his privacy have shaken students, faculty and administrators at colleges in Maryland and across the country. On campuses where students routinely hear, and ignore, warnings against "over-sharing" online, faculty and administrators are looking for new ways to get that message across.

"In an instant, this thing can become so public that you're willing to take your life for it," said Lee Calizo, student life director at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "They think there's something that's fun and games for them that becomes this life-altering thing for the other person.

"The challenge for colleges and universities is trying to get students to slow down half a second to think about what it is before they hit 'send' or 'public.'"'

Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi, and a friend of Ravi's, Molly Wei, are accused of using a webcam to film and transmit footage of Clementi, a promising music student who jumped from the George Washington Bridge last week after learning of the posting. They have been charged with two counts each of invasion of privacy.

Each faces a maximum five-year sentence on the charge of transmitting the footage over the Internet. The New Jersey attorney general's office is reviewing the case to decide whether to prosecute it as a bias crime, which would double the maximum penalty on that count to 10 years. Ravi faces additional privacy-invasion charge related to collecting the images.

A few years ago at the Johns Hopkins University, "in the early stages of Facebook," a student used social media to out a gay student, university spokesman Dennis O'Shea said. The student who did the outing faced "serious sanctions" from the university, O'Shea said.

"It's unbelievable that stuff like that still happens," said Connie Calderon, a senior economics major at Hopkins and co-president of the Diversity Sexuality and Gender Alliance. "It kind of takes public humiliation to a whole new level.

"In the past, it was something that was really just word of mouth," she said. "Here, it can really take on this new level. Social media has its benefits, but it also has its negatives. It's really up to the responsibility of the users. If you are going to use the Internet to publicly humiliate another student, it's really just not worth it. It's just despicable."

During orientation for new students at Hopkins, the university addresses all forms of harassment, O'Shea said. As part of those discussions, students are told that "it is inappropriate to harass people about disclosing information that they have kept secret, including issues of sexuality."

"It hasn't been a major part of our orientation but it's certainly something that we bring up to students," O'Shea said. "Any time something like this happens, it's a good time to take a fresh look at what you're doing, and I'm sure they will do that."

UMBC has tried to get that message across to students during freshman orientation, with a program that mixes age-old advice — don't ask the professor whose class you've just skipped, "Did I miss anything?" — with 21st-century tips, like watch out for Facebook.

"We do these video clips where we show students doing different things, posting stuff to a Facebook site," said Calizo, the student life director. "'Here are some pictures of me in social scene, at a party. And I got sick.' The next clip is walking into a career center and asking for a job.

"What you post is accessible to people and to future employers. I don't think students are thinking about those things when they are posting and in the moment."

In addition cautioning students about posting embarrassing material about themselves, they are warned not to do that to others.

"Posting things about other people — that's not being a community member like we would want to have at UMBC," Calizo said. "Disclosing stuff about yourself is one thing; disclosing stuff about other people, that's just not who we are."

Linda Clement, vice president for student affairs at the University of Maryland, said that Clementi's death struck a nerve on the College Park campus. In her 10 years in her current position, and more than a quarter-century on the Maryland campus, Clement said, the facts surrounding Clementi's suicide were as tragic of any she'd heard of.

"We've had tragedies on our campus, and it almost freezes you," Clement said. "This is even more jarring."

Clement said that several members of the faculty sent her e-mails saying that they would talk about what happened at Rutgers in their own classes. Several students came into the campus counseling center to talk about it as well, Clement said.

"We're making staff available — that's the most important thing we can do right now," Clement said. "I'm glad people are coming in, saying, 'I'm very bothered by this.'"

Jay Garvey, a third-year doctoral student at Maryland who serves as faculty adviser for the Pride Alliance, one of several groups on campus that serve gay and lesbian members, said that the tragedy at Rutgers has stirred a great deal of discussion on Facebook message boards.

But Steve Glickman, student government president at College Park, said he'd only "vaguely heard about it."

"I don't believe it's something that's big news around here," he said.

Glickman had, like other students, heard his share of warnings about what damage embarrassing Internet images can pose for their career prospects.

"When students go to any job-searching seminar, they're always told, 'Whatever goes online, stays online — forever. Once it's in cyberspace, it never disappears,'" Glickman said. "It is something that is definitely spoken about at job seminars and any career fairs."

But Glickman seemed to think the damage that happens is mostly self-inflicted: students posting hard-partying or risque images of themselves that they later regret sharing. He'd never heard of the sort of unwilling posting that went on at Rutgers. "I don't think that occurs at all" at College Park, he said.

That said, Glickman said he had been warned — particularly before he turned 21 — that he should be careful about his behavior at college parties given his position in student government.

"People joke that I always have to be careful because our student newspaper might be around the corner with a camera," Glickman said. "They love stories like that. ... In SGA in particular, we always have to know who's listening and what we're saying. We are technically public figures in the undergraduate world."

The McClatchy-Tribune news service contributed to this article.