Tyler Clementi should have graduated college in May of 2014. He should be 23 years old. I’d like to think that after college he would have taken some time to travel, maybe spent a summer backpacking through Europe or touring with an orchestra. He would probably be starting out a new job in his chosen field, although I will never know what that might have been. He would be playing the violin, embarking on new adventures, and discovering who he is as young man.
None of these things ever happened, because five years ago, my youngest brother ended his own life. As an 18-year-old college freshman in the fall of 2010, Tyler was humiliated via cyberbullying at the hands of his peers. Unable to cope with the invasion of privacy and its devastating emotional toll, soon afterward he jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge.
Each Sept. 22 since has been an especially difficult day to endure. I am flooded with memories of Tyler’s death, his funeral, and the media scrutiny over his suicide. I also relieve many memories of Tyler’s life and the happy times that we enjoyed together. This is also painful, because I can no longer create new memories with him. I watch my parents go through an incredible internal hell that I cannot help them escape, and I am confronted once again with all of the guilt and regret that I try so hard all year to move on from.
Even as I have made incredible strides toward healing and forgiveness in the past five years, today always reminds me that my life and my family have been permanently altered due to suicide. I welcome the pain, because it means that Tyler mattered, that he was loved, and that in his brief 18 years on this earth he made a permanent impression on those of us who knew him. Yet the pain is so unfair. Tyler’s death was completely preventable. I should not know what it feels like to lose a brother.
Over the last several years, my family has had to grapple with the questions of why this happened, and how we could have prevented it. No matter how much we want to, we can’t travel through time to bring Tyler back. But we have channeled our love for Tyler to serving other youth who feel isolated and targeted by bullies by creating the Tyler Clementi Foundation. We have chosen to use our personal tragedy as a teaching tool for others, so that more lives like Tyler’s are not senselessly lost. This fall, our foundation launched a research-based initiative that we believe will help other families avoid the sort of tragedy and pain that befell ours: the #Day1 Campaign.
The two biggest questions we have wrestled with are: “Why would someone want to hurt or humiliate Tyler?” And, “How can we make sure that other youth who are being bullied reach out for help before they take a self-harming action?” #Day1 addresses both of these issues. While it may seem obvious that we should always treat others with respect and dignity, the reality is that middle, high school, and college level students are not hearing this message from their teachers or administrators at school.
The #Day1 campaign explicitly spells out for young people exactly how they are expected to behave towards their peers. It states that mistreatment and abusive, cruel behavior that will not be tolerated against any student for any reason. After students have heard the #Day1 pledge, they know exactly what is expected of them as part of the school community, and there is no room for misunderstanding. If Tyler or his peers had heard this statement at the beginning of their freshman year, it may have drastically impacted the way he was treated.
In regards to my second question, I believe the biggest obstacle for young people reaching out for help is the shame and stigma they feel when they experience bullying and harassment. It is my hope and belief that by having teachers and school administrators read the #Day1 pledge to students, it will send the message, “You are not alone. You have nothing to be ashamed of. Let us help you. We are here to help, and we want to help.” When a student hears their school’s principal read the #Day1 pledge during an assembly, or their history teacher read the pledge in the classroom, it sends them the message that they are not the only person that this is happening to. It lets them know that their school has an environment of support and acceptance for those who are different, and they are empowered to speak out if their dignity is being violated in any way.
We can’t expect vulnerable young people to reach out to a teacher to ask for help from a frightening and humiliating situation without encouragement. We must lighten the load and make it easier for them to come to us by showing them that they can. The #Day1 pledge allows us to do just that. I hope you will join me in standing up to bullying at day1campaign.com.
Guided by the memory of his younger brother Tyler, James Clementi is one of the nation’s leading activists for anti-bullying, suicide prevention and LGBT rights. Along with his family, James works for the Tyler Clementi Foundation, which aims to end bullying both online and off.