1. The Bullying Conundrum
2. How to Fix the Problem
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Each new student tragedy sparks calls for stricter laws. But the rules come at a price--and sensational cases aren't always what they seem
At around 7:30 A.M. on Feb. 27, a 17-year-old named T.J. Lane allegedly walked into a high school outside Cleveland with a .22 Ruger handgun. The shooter chose the Chardon High School cafeteria to begin his attack and got off 10 rounds. Police say he managed to hit five students. Three are dead.
Motives for the killings remain a mystery--the local prosecutor says Lane chose his victims at random, but a fellow student suggested that one victim may have been dating a girl Lane had courted. Yet even as police worked to secure the crime scene, one word quickly attached to the unfolding drama: bullying. Early reports described Lane as a "bullied outcast." Anguished callers to local radio stations decried bullying. The day after the shooting, reporters at the White House asked President Obama's chief spokesman whether bullying had caused the crime. The spokesman demurred, but the idea stuck: a bullied kid had struck back.
As more details emerged, the story shifted. Lane, a well-built kid who had a group of friends and a lively Facebook account, didn't look like a classic victim. What is clear is that he survived a rough childhood. His parents were both arrested for domestic violence, and his father served time in prison for assault. Lane was living with his grandparents when he was arrested. He will almost certainly be charged as an adult, and brutal truths will emerge. But for now, Lane seems like both a bully--he shot five kids--and a victim.
Approximately 400 miles from Chardon, in a New Brunswick, N.J., courtroom, bullying also became the focus of a trial that began a week before the Ohio shootings. Dharun Ravi is accused of having so viciously tormented his Rutgers University roommate, a gay 18-year-old named Tyler Clementi, that in September 2010, Clementi leaped to his death from the George Washington Bridge. Partly because of the bridge's proximity to the nation's media capital and partly because of Clementi's gut-wrenching Facebook sign-off--"jumping off the gw bridge sorry"--the case ignited a furor over bullying that swept the tragedy from a local to an international story.
Details of the Clementi case show that it too is more nuanced than was initially reported. No one disputes that Ravi secretly set up a webcam to spy on Clementi after the latter asked to have their room to himself. No one disputes that Ravi watched as Clementi kissed another man, tweeted crudely that Clementi was gay and allowed at least one friend to watch Clementi's assignation. But in part because Ravi never posted the webcam video online, prosecutors are struggling to prove their case that he is guilty of "bias intimidation." The same day that Lane was shooting in Ohio, one of the New Jersey prosecutor's star witnesses, a friend of Ravi's, declined on the stand to testify that Ravi was biased against gays. In short, what began as a clear-cut case of bullying has led to a muddle that looks like a roommate dispute gone terribly wrong. Clementi was already out to his parents and others; he and Ravi both instant-messaged foolish and brutish things about each other. After the webcam incident, Clementi initially dismissed it: "he just like took a five sec peep lol," he IM'd a friend. The suicide came three days later.
The Bullying Conundrum
Very little about bullying conforms to popular belief. Not all that long ago, it was dismissed as an unfortunate rite of childhood. But because of high-profile cases like the Clementi tragedy and the 2010 suicide of Phoebe Prince, a Massachusetts girl, bullying has become cemented in public opinion as a growing epidemic. Measures rushed into place following these tragedies reinforce the sense of a spreading plague: