After the Rutgers Suicide Tragedy, Schools Push to Promote Privacy

The extreme, and sometimes deadly, actions of students are all too often the pivotal factor that brings about major reforms in the ways universities handle themselves. For instance, the infamous massacre-suicide at Virginia Tech in 2007 not only changed the way colleges and universities addressed outreach for students with mental health issues, but also drove colleges across the nation to put detailed emergency response plans into place in the event of a shooting or other major crisis.

More recently, the tragic suicide of a Rutgers student is causing school administration to think long and hard about what they can do to promote student privacy on school campuses and dorm rooms, according to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old freshman, jumped to his death from a New Jersey bridge last month after experiencing a particularly humiliating breach of privacy in which his sexual encounter in his dorm with another male was recorded via webcam without his permission and splashed across the Web without his knowledge. As a result, Clementi was publicly outed as being gay. Clementi’s roommate and a fellow hallmate were both charged with invasion of privacy for transmitting the sexual encounter over the Internet without consent, according to the New York Times.

So what can school administrations do to urge students to respect each others’ privacy — not just in such extreme examples as videoing sexual encounters, but also in other potentially humiliating ways? The Chronicle article outlined a few potential ideas put forth by experts and campus officials. The first goal could be to provide more education for students on matters of privacy, starting as early as freshman orientation. An orientation topic would include a thorough overview of any university policies as it relates to student privacy, as well as an overview of state privacy and hate crime laws.

Another idea was to have campus officials arrange seminars and events in which topics of privacy as it relates to the Internet are discussed and discussions are facilitated on what is and is not appropriate to post online. Still another idea was to encourage faculty to incorporate topics of online privacy into their lectures when relevant to their particular subject area.

Since events and panels held on campus are generally not mandatory, it is vital for students to hear about the importance of student privacy in lectures that are mandatory, such as freshman orientation and information sessions on dorm rules. All this is tempered by the fact that most experts and campus officials strongly agree that universities should not and cannot police or micromanage what students write and post on social networks or blogs. Doing so would infringe on students’ right to free speech. But requiring students to sit in on one or more discussions on school policy and related state privacy law is perfectly within the rights of a university. Finally, colleges can put more effort into roommate pairing and make it easier for students to switch roommates when volatile and humiliating situations occur.

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