Bad roommates can be deadly

So why do universities make it so hard to switch rooms?

Photo by anantal on Flickr

Dharun Ravi, a 20-year-old Rutgers University student, is facing up to 10 years in prison if jurors decide that his unauthorized webcam broadcast of a roommate’s gay trysts amounts to a hate crime.

The New Jersey court case, now is in its twelfth day, gained international attention because Ravi’s roommate, Tyler Clementi, fatally threw himself from a bridge two days after a humiliating show.

The jury has heard details of how Ravi used the word “fag” in instant messages and how he Tweeted “anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 pm and 12.”

What the jury won’t hear is what Clementi had written as his reasoning for requesting a room change, according to the prosecutor: “Roommate with webcam spying on me/want a single room.”

The university didn’t investigate the spying claim at the time, Clementi is not here to confirm the veracity of the claim, and therefore it’s considered hearsay and can’t be entered into court.

What’s on trial here, for all intents and purposes, is whether a bully—not a psychopathic bully, but a common bully—can be held responsible for the death of a victim taunted over his sexuality.

What should instead be on trial, I believe, is a university system where vulnerable teens pay thousands of dollars and are then forced to sleep metres away from strangers who taunt them.

If Clementi had been granted his request to move to a single room, had been given a better roommate from the start, or had been offered a reprieve while his situation was sorted, he may still be alive. If any of those things had happened, Ravi may not be facing a decade in prison, either.

Universities should treat room change requests, especially from GLBTQ students, more seriously.

Canadian university residence websites inform students that room changes are, at best, a last resort. Many say changes won’t even be considered unless the requester has confronted their foe.

Some schools, like the University of Saskatchewan tell students that “conflict resolution and learning to live with others are life skills which are cultivated in a University Residence environment.”

While that’s an admirable sentiment, it’s not realistic to expect a teenager to know how to resolve a serious conflict—-or to risk further humiliation by asking their residence don to step in.

There’s another problem too. Saskatchewan says (in bold type no less) that they don’t wish to consider roommate changes in September. That is, don’t bug us until at least October.

Problem is, Clementi died on Sept. 22. That first month at university is when students are most vulnerable, and GLBTQ teens are always more vulnerable—five time more likely to kill themselves.

Think about it. Clementi’s life was hell after his roommates had seen him have gay sex on webcam. Imagine how uncomfortable he felt before that too, with a roommate prone to using the word “fag.”

That’s not say it was ideal for Ravi either. He too was adjusting to college life and found himself unfairly booted from his own room on more than one occasion by a couple of horny strangers.

They were a bad match, and obviously, universities can’t offer single rooms for every bad match.

But what they can do is proactively avoid mismatches where a student’s safety is likely to be at risk.

One option is to encourage GLBTQ students to self-identify when they apply—heck, after they move in if needed—so that they can get a single room or be placed with a fellow GLBTQ teen.

That’s already happening to a degree at some schools in the U.S., like the University of South Florida.

Above all, universities must stop telling students that room changes are next-to-impossible and implying that confronting abusive roommates is their only tangible option for dealing with abuse.

Because for some students, like Tyler Clementi, if a room change doesn’t seem like a tangible option, suicide may seem like the only option left.

Josh Dehaas is the editor of Maclean’s On Campus. Follow @maconcampus and @JoshDehaas.

Bad roommates can be deadly

  1. I feel like this article is a little too sympathetic to Ravi, considering what we know about the case.

    “That’s not say it was ideal for Ravi either. He too was adjusting to college life and found himself unfairly booted from his own room on more than one occasion by a couple of horny strangers.”

    The truth is, the vast majority of student housing residents have shared this experience. What separates us from Ravi is we don’t discreetly hide web cameras, then record and broadcast the roommate’s private sexual encounter to the internet for the purpose of insulting their lifestyle.

    Personally, I hope he isn’t found guilty. While I think we he did was deplorable, it’s a few shades away from being complicit in his death.

    • I feel this article is too one-sided (in favor of Clementi). Regardless of what Ravi said in his tweets, text, or instant messages, they are offset by Clementi’s racially stereotypical remarks about Ravi’s parent’s owning a Dunkin (Donuts). Not to mention that he refers to Ravi as an A**Hole who he happens to be stalking. Don’t make one seem like a jerk while the other a choir boy. They both appear immature but that is typical of college freshmen who are straight out of high school.

      It’s only pure speculation as to why Clementi committed suicide. We should just leave it at that cause no one here is him.

  2. My son was living with a slob, who stayed up all night watching videos (loudly) with no earphones. He tried to talk to the kid, with a “okay man, chill” as the reply. September, October, November went by with talks to the floor rep and a conduct meeting but not much changed. My son could not sleep, was creeped out by the filth left by this kid and not cleaned up. When friends would come by they would say the kitchenette smelled like dog food. The only saving grace was that it was two separate bedrooms, with shared small kitchenette and bathroom so my son’s bedroom remained clean. Even through the wall my son could hear this kid, with his constant video watching. No manager ever showed up to see the filth and he could not sleep for exams so I finally asked if he wanted me to call. He said please. I phoned, said my son could not sleep and still get good marks and they moved him the next day. I got a manager to finally go to the room and take a look at the mess the other kid had left in the kitchen and bathroom. Even though the floor rep had sent them email messages, the manager had not come to check it out before. My son didn’t want to go over the floor rep’s head so kept hoping someone would come to help him. Schools have to make sure that kids that mark down that they need quiet and go to bed at 11 pm and are clean, get put with the same type of student. If any problems develop between roommates, for any reason, the school has to step up and do something, not ignore the problem. I was happy my son got into a new room with a student who was like him but feel bad for whomever got the old roommate with the noise and lack of cleanliness.

    • One of the biggest challenges facing housing offices at Universities is that although they would love to be able to place all students in the types of room they prefer (i.e. single in most cases), or be able to accommodate change requests on demand, there is simply not the space to be able to do so. If all residence beds are full upon move-in in September, then there is no place to ‘move’ a student to when they are facing difficulties with their roommate.
      Most university housing offices go through an extensive process to try and match students with like-minded individuals. Questions around how late they stay up, how neat do they keep their room, etc. are all part of this process. Unfortunately, not all students complete these questionnaires honestly. Often times they don’t answer honestly because a parent is sitting beside them while they do it, or worse yet, because the parent themselves fills it in (happens more often than you could imagine).

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