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Two Suicides: Teacher, Student, and Technology’s Role

| September 30, 2010 | 2 Comments
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Two tragic suicides recently have spotlighted the role of technology in privacy and the unintended consequences of exposing information to the public.

On Sunday, the body of 39-year-old Rigoberto Ruelas, a fifth-grade Los Angeles county teacher, was found in a ravine. Though Ruelas did not leave a note, family members believe they know why, according to the Los Angeles Times:

Teachers union President A.J. Duffy said his staff was told by Ruelas’ family that the teacher was depressed about his score on a teacher-rating database posted by The Times on its website. The newspaper analyzed seven years of student test scores in English and math to determine how much students’ performance improved under about 6,000 third- through fifth-grade teachers. Based on The Times’ findings, Ruelas was rated “average” in his ability to raise students’ English scores and “less effective” in his ability to raise math scores. Overall, he was rated slightly “less effective” than his peers.

And last week, Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi jumped off of the George Washington Bridge, days after after his roommate broadcast online a surreptitiously-made video of him in a sex act with another man.

In both cases, technology was the tool blamed for the incidents. Fox News asserted the “dehumanizing effects that technology is having on young people” in relation to Clementi’s suicide. Ruelas’ family claims that the L.A. Times’ public posting of the “value-added” ratings of teachers based on seven years of student test scores was unfair, and the United Teachers Los Angeles (the L.A.-based union), has called for the online ratings to be removed from the Times’ website.

These tragedies call attention to the vast power of technology just by virtue of its ability to make information transparent to all. Would Ruelas have committed suicide if his ratings as a teacher were not publicized online, but somehow made available only to him and his principal? Would Clementi have killed himself if the video hadn’t circulated online, but if his roommate took Polaroids and distributed them to anyone who would look? We can’t answer these questions, but we should consider them in the discussion.

The tool that enabled those pieces of information to be released — the Internet — also helps educators to connect with one another, share professional ideas and tools and personal victories, and to help students learn about the world and connect with other students across the globe. Technology itself is not the culprit, but part of a complicated paradigm that should never be underestimated.

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  • Eric Westby

    Interesting and chilling to see the connection between two people who felt so publicly and widely humiliated that ending their lives was the only option.

    It gets even odder once you start to look into Mr. Clementi's death: Gawker has learned that not only did he have a large group of gay friends online, he had discussed with them his roommate's earlier attempts to spy on him. He sounded rational, grounded, more angry than despondent: he said he had begun the process of finding a new roommate. How was he pushed so quickly from that state of mind to suicidal?

    http://gawker.com/5651659/is-this-webcam-spying-victim-tyler-clementis-last-call-for-help

  • Tom Louie

    Rigo Ruelas was my friend and colleague. I agree that there is a connection with technology being used to hurt people, but there is also a connection with the bullying phenomenon. Even though we usually think of bullying as stopping after high school (“It gets better”), the young man at Rutgers was a victim of public humiliation by technological means, also known as cyberbullying. Rigo and 6,000 other LA teachers are also cyberbullying victims. To be honest, not all of us are convinced that Rigo was bullied to death — it is hard for us to believe the suicide verdict. But whether there is culpability in his death or not, the Los Angeles Times is still guilty of cyberbullying, and still guilty of defaming a good teacher’s name even after death.