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Smerconish: Bullying should be confronted at every opportunity

Tomorrow in New Jersey, the strongest law in the nation regarding bullying goes into effect.Within one day of a bullying incident, principals must begin an inve

Tomorrow in New Jersey, the strongest law in the nation regarding bullying goes into effect.

Within one day of a bullying incident, principals must begin an investigation, and twice a year, superintendents must provide reports to Trenton detailing all episodes. Getting lots of attention is that in one district, East Hanover, Crimestoppers will accept anonymous text messages, calls or tips to its web site, and then forward the information to school and local police officials.

Richard G. Bozza, the executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators told the New York Times, "I think this has gone well overboard." Some educators say they were given no resources to implement 18 pages of requirements.

The law was inspired by the suicide of a Rutgers freshman last September. That was the case where Tyler Clementi, an 18 year old freshman, took his life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.

His roommate, Dharun Ravi, stands charged with invasion of privacy and intimidation as a bias crime based on Clementi's sexuality and faces up to 10 years in jail if convicted.

The widely circulated version of the story after the incident was that Ravi and a female student, with malice, on more than one occasion used a web cam to spy on Clementi while he was in an intimate encounter with another man, and that such was Clementi's embarrassment upon learning of the privacy violation, that he took his own life. The prosecution narrative asserts that Ravi sought to expose Clementi's sexual orientation to humiliate and intimidate him.

But hundreds of pages of documents filed in court by the defense suggest a more complicated picture, although none of which will change the tragic outcome.

The defense documents suggest that: there was no sexual encounter, nor any recording of any sexual encounter; that Clementi may have been depressed before he arrived at Rutgers; part of the reason for his depression may have been his own mother's reaction to his sexual identity; and that his roommate, Ravi had said in one online exchange that he really didn't care about Clementi's orientation. For his part, Clementi apparently commented on Ravi's ethnicity, speculating that his parents owned a Dunkin' Donuts. Also, the defense maintains that at the time Clementi was taking his life, Ravi was apologizing for his own behavior.

Bullying is a bad thing that should be confronted at every opportunity. Bias based on sexuality is similarly abhorrent and needs to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But what went on in Davidson Hall at Rutgers last fall may have been neither of those. Instead it may have been a case of students behaving badly, a gross invasion of privacy, motivated by a prurient interest in sex - regardless of whether it involved men with men or men with women. And if that's the case, the lesson for educators might be that not all student misbehavior is bullying.