Jane Clementi is the founder of the Tyler Clementi Foundation, which works to end online and offline bullying in schools, workplaces, and faith communities. She started the advocacy organization in 2011 to honor her son, Tyler. He died by suicide at age 18 in the first month of his freshman year at Rutgers University. Among the foundation’s programs is the Million Upstander Movement, in which enlistees pledge to stand up to bullying and treat others with kindness, respect, and compassion. The Sophie Fund’s Anna Moura spoke to Jane Clementi via Zoom on October 28, 2020.
Tyler and Jane Clementi [Courtesy Jane Clementi]
THE SOPHIE FUND: What drove you to create the Tyler Clementi Foundation?
JANE CLEMENTI: It was in the wake of my son’s death. He died by suicide in the fall of 2010 after he had been just started his freshman year. His roommate live-streamed him in a sexual encounter with another man. And then, as he read the comments and quotes on social media, his reality became twisted and distorted, and he made that permanent decision to a very temporary situation, and he died by suicide. It was to honor his legacy.
There were several high-profile deaths in the fall of 2010, but Tyler’s seemed to rise even up to the top of those and his story held national headlines for several weeks after that. Several noted celebrities continued to talk about Tyler over the course of time. As my fog lifted from the extreme distress that I was in after Tyler’s death, I realized that there was a lot of good positive conversation that was happening, and that those conversations were helping to create change, to make life better for other LGBTQ youth as well as just other marginalized youth that were being targeted.
I wanted to make sure that the world knew more about Tyler and the kind, caring, resourceful young man that he actually was. I also have come in years since to realize how distressed he truly was as well. I recently moved, within the last six months, and I came across more writings that Tyler had documented some of his pain and sadness and anger. It was someone I didn’t even recognize. I had no idea. So not everyone exhibits symptoms of their pain.
THE SOPHIE FUND: How do you define the problem of bullying?
JANE CLEMENTI: I think it’s a complex issue with a complex array of solutions. I think it’s helpful for us to share our stories so that people are aware of the great consequences and harm that can be caused from bullying behavior. I like to make sure people know that not all bullying situations end in the same devastating way that Tyler’s story ended. But with that said, all bullying hurts when it is happening, and it often leaves lifelong scars, whether physical or emotional, psychological scars.
I also think it is an issue that needs our constant attention and immediate attention. I don’t think it’s “kids just being kids.” I don’t think it magically disappears when someone turns 18. It’s behavior that goes on uncorrected and unchallenged. We have to identify that behavior early—the earlier, the better—to make change. Legislation is important, but I think it’s just a small component of creating change. I think most legislation sets the boundaries, which I think is key and important, but after that once the boundaries are crossed, it is very punitive. It mostly deals with punishment or suspension. I don’t think that that changes the behavior. I think we need to implement more behavior modification, and maybe reward positive behavior and call out positive behavior as part of the solution.
We are working preventing bullying online and off, as well as in schools, workplaces, and faith communities. Because I think it happens not only to youth, and not only in schools, but also through legislative inequalities as well as religious dogma that targets especially those in the LGBTQ community. We can go further down to the root of the cause and that will help prevent it for other people.
THE SOPHIE FUND: What can we really do to make an impact on bullying behavior?
JANE CLEMENTI: We have a few initiatives ourselves with the Tyler Clementi Foundation that we think will impact that behavior. First of all, we think it’s important to realize that there’s more than just the target and the aggressor in a bullying situation. But there are bystanders. Almost all situations have bystanders, people who see what’s happening. And those are bystanders because they’re passive and remain silent. That is like condoning and supporting the aggressive behavior. So, we want to empower those bystanders, and we call them “upstanders” once they become empowered. We think that there are many ways to do that.
You can intervene and interrupt a situation if you feel comfortable and if you know the people involved. Because we never ever want anyone else to come into harm’s way. Sometimes it’s as easy as, if you know the people and maybe think they are using racial slurs or homophobic slurs as jest or some type of humor—which they are not—and calling it out and saying that this isn’t funny.
It might even be as simple as coming beside the person being targeted and calling them away and pulling them physically out of the situation, saying, “Come with me, I want to show you something I saw outside, or down the hall,” or whatever.
If you don’t feel comfortable in that situation, or if the behavior doesn’t get changed, it’s about reporting it to a trusted adult or a youth. Or reporting it to the proper people if it’s happening in the workplace, up your ladder, your chain of command, your human resources department, something to that effect.
If you have someone’s best interest at heart, it is not tattling, or telling on someone. It’s about finding them the right support, which takes us to the third easiest way. That is to reach out to the target. I think that that is important. I think if someone had reached out to Tyler, it would have made all the difference for him. Making sure they know where their resources are. Tyler had resources at Rutgers, and he had resources at home. But no one made sure he knew how to reach out. And when you’re in a really dark place, and I learned personally, you don’t often see your resources. You just see the pain and the bleakness. So reaching out to the target, making sure, sometimes it’s just about making sure they know you’re there, you’re a friend. I think those are key elements of being an upstander.
We also believe that its more than just a one-on-one but about creating safe communities as well. We believe that someone, if they say on a first day of a group meeting together, whether it’s a sports team, or a club, or a classroom, or an entire school, having a person of authority set the boundaries, and say that we value everyone here, we will not accept anybody being targeted or humiliated for any reason. And then calling out and enumerating the reasons. Such as body shape and size, or abilities, or what language they speak at home, or their sexual orientation, or their gender identity, or whatever else makes somebody special and precious.
We do think people are targeted because of their differences, and we need to enumerate those differences so people understand that, and then get an acknowledgement back from the group that, yes, they understand. It is not a magic wand. The aggressor needs to hear where the boundaries are sometimes. It is also a huge message for someone who is marginalized to hear, to know that they are welcome and included in this space regardless of whatever makes them special.
THE SOPHIE FUND: Tell us about the “Upstander Pledge”?
JANE CLEMENTI: We started it several years ago. We wanted to reach a million people with our upstander pledge by October of 2020, and I’m pleased to say that we did just reach a million people. We’re really thrilled about that announcement, but we also know that a million people sounds like a lot, but it still needs to reach more. So we are going to continue our message. It is also a message that needs to be heard over and over again.
Every time you are faced with a situation, it’s not like, “Oh, I signed the pledge, I’m good.” You have to really think about it. One of the things I’ve learned is that there is something called the bystander phenomenon. The more people that see an incident happening the less likely that somebody is to stand up to that incident. That’s why we need to have it fresh on our mind: “Wait a minute, nobody is saying anything. That’s me. I need to be that person that stands in the gap. I need to be the person to be empowered enough, and to have the courage enough, to stand up here.” And then hopefully you’ll be the leader to create a wave of people that will stand up to that.
THE SOPHIE FUND: How does the foundation’s work specifically impact LGBTQ youth?
JANE CLEMENTI: Our mission is broad in that it speaks to anyone’s difference. With that said, I think that allows us to speak specifically where we go and where we are invited in to talk. We are not quite as problematic for some schools or for some businesses that might not be able to or want to invite, say, GLSEN, or GLAAD, or HRC. And yet, for us, that is a huge focus of our work because that is part of Tyler’s story. Tyler was a gay youth, so we can speak to that. We have a gentle way of bringing that conversation to the organization that we are speaking in.
THE SOPHIE FUND: How do you view the problem of cyberbullying?
JANE CLEMENTI: With Covid we are spending so much more of our time in the digital cyber world, so the incidences of cyber-attack or bullying are so much greater. We have to be sure and think about the words that we’re using, and say the words that are building other people up and not attacking their character. I think it’s important that we see the humanity behind something and being willing to back up whatever we say by saying it to someone’s face, not saying it just through words on a screen.
THE SOPHIE FUND: Can you talk about the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act?
JANE CLEMENTI: A little history. It was created and introduced into the Senate initially by the New Jersey’s senator at the time, which was Senator Frank Lautenberg. He realized a truth which I still see today, that there is no federal anti-bullying legislation at all. Since Tyler was a college student, he initiated the bill to speak to colleges and universities, higher education institutions, to create policies and programs to protect all their students.
In 2010, in the fall, there were very few state laws for anti-bullying. I think New Jersey instituted one of the first. New Jersey’s law is called HIB—Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying. That passed shortly after Tyler’s death. At this point, all 50 states have some form of anti-bullying legislation. Which also means each state has a different definition of what bullying is. There are 50 different definitions out there. And so I do think we do need a federal law.
There are several that are out there. The two that are most known are the Safe Schools Act, which would be K-12, and that is supported by the Human Rights Campaign, and several other organizations. And then there’s theTyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act. That is also supported by HRC and a few less organizations than the Safe Schools Act. But it does not seem to get passed legislatively. Maybe with the new Congress we can get that moving forward.
THE SOPHIE FUND: What do you think is needed specifically in higher education?
JANE CLEMENTI: One of the things with LGBTQ support is that many colleges and higher education institutions do not have a resource person or an LGBTQ center on their college campuses. Out of 6,000 institutions, only less than 10 percent had a resource person, one FTE employee who was in charge of the resource center. So, I think that there needs to be more resource availability available through a center through a place where people can gather together and receive the support that they need.
Most institutions also need policies in place to protect all students and calling out and enumerating classes including LGBTQI+ students as well. With those policies they should have trainings for staff as well as for students. Those are components of Tyler’s bill also. Having not only policies in place but trainings for staff and students.
THE SOPHIE FUND: Can you talk a little bit about the Tyler Clementi Center at Rutgers University?
JANE CLEMENTI: We have a Memorandum of Understanding with Rutgers that created the Tyler Clementi Center at Rutgers. It falls under the inclusion and diversity chancellor. They are working towards having research and symposiums. For all marginalized students, but the last two symposiums have been specific to LGBTQ, creating safe LGBTQ spaces on the college campus. They just did a web conference, the topic was “Out of The Closet.” It was discussing the safety aspect of being in the closet against the harm of being in the closet, which usually outweighs the safety. It was about not forcing people to come out before they were ready to come out. But how to rather encourage people to see the positive aspect of being out, and the better emotional mental health of it.
The Clementi Family at Tyler’s high school graduation 2010 [Courtesy Jane Clementi]
THE SOPHIE FUND: How do you view bullying in the context of today’s divisive political scene?
JANE CLEMENTI: We never will agree with everyone completely on solutions. But I do think it is key that we learn how to have those conversations respectfully and to talk about the issues and solutions to the problems without attacking someone’s character or the person. I think that’s one of the things that we haven’t achieved very well in our political system right now. As a nonprofit, we don’t endorse any candidate at all, but we certainly need leaders that will exemplify and model good behavior for us and not call out and target and attack a person’s character but have those respectful conversations.
Until we do, I think it definitely affects youth today. You might dismiss it, but there was a research project out of the University of Virginia that talked about the last political campaign for the last election. It showed that bullying behavior increased among youth after certain political leaders exhibited it on the television screen or their news media screen, and visualizing someone calling out news reporters for their disabilities, or calling out other people and attacking their personality.
THE SOPHIE FUND: Why did the foundation reach out to the 2020 presidential candidates to take the upstander pledge?
JANE CLEMENTI: They were going to occupy so much of our time through news, we thought it was important that the candidates, all of the candidates, would take our pledge and to live out our pledge in their campaign. We reached out in a bipartisan way to everyone running at the time, and we posted them on our website.
It is multi-faceted the answer as to why some people did not take the pledge. Obviously, it was interesting to me that all the candidates were from the Democratic Party that did sign our pledge. But even within that Democratic Party, there were some that did not take it. Some responded that they don’t sign pledges, and they don’t put their name to things that they don’t have control over. And I accept that. But we got most of the top contenders who were running which I think speaks volumes. If someone actually engages in bullying behavior, I would imagine that they wouldn’t want to sign the pledge.
THE SOPHIE FUND: How do you assess the “Be Best” initiative of First Lady Melania Trump? People have accused President Trump of engaging in bullying and not setting a “Be Best” example.
JANE CLEMENTI: I concur. I don’t think he would be the best example. I don’t think her initiative is as robust as it should be either. I see very little about it. Maybe I’m just missing it in my news area. I do know that she had one conference and I know some people who attended the conference. I didn’t even know that it was happening until after the fact. I think it was shallow at best, and I think she could have had a larger and stronger voice in this area. Although it’s very difficult when you are trying to reap change for good and one of the people involved on the other side and is occupying so much media attention is actually being the aggressor in many situations. and being the aggressor without knowing that he even is the aggressor. I have to have a good view of everyone. I can’t imagine someone wants to be an aggressor or wants to inflict cruel pain on someone else. I think sometimes it is just not even in their consciousness that they are being that type of an aggressor.
—By Anna Moura
Anna Moura, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a Class of 2021 Writing major and Psychology minor at Ithaca College
[To learn more, check out local, state, and national resources on bullying at https://thesophiefund.org/bullying]