Stalking on Campus: Know More, Do More

Stalking is dangerous and devastating, often intersecting with physical and sexual violence. Here’s how your campus can help victims.

Stalking on Campus: Know More, Do More

Image via Adobe, by blattwerkstatt

January 2024 marked the 20th annual National Stalking Awareness Month (NSAM), but it’s important to continue to raise awareness around stalking throughout the year. Too often, stalking goes unrecognized and unaddressed—by victims/survivors and their friends and family, advocacy and support services, campus misconduct proceedings, and legal systems.

Stalking is a crime as well as a violation of campus conduct codes and Title IX, and covered under the Clery Act and Violence Against Women Act to the same extent as dating/domestic violence and sexual assault. Stalking is its own form of violence with its own risks, safety planning needs, and disciplinary and legal responses. It is important to identify stalking separate from and in addition to co-occurring victimizations and misconduct. It’s also critical to know how to identify and respond to this criminal, traumatic, and dangerous victimization.

What Is Stalking?

Statutory criminal definitions vary across jurisdictions, but Title IX uses a behavioral definition, which is: “Stalking is a pattern of behavior directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to fear for the person’s safety or the safety of others; or suffer substantial emotional distress.”

Many stalkers combine behaviors that are crimes or policy violations on their own (like property damage, trespassing, harassment) with other tactics that are not criminal or violations on their own (like sending gifts or text messages), but every incident in a stalking pattern of behavior can be considered part of the crime or violation.

Fear/emotional distress is central to the definition of stalking. As fear/emotional distress is highly personal, so is stalking. Stalkers often engage in behaviors that seem benign to outsiders but are terrifying in context. For example, many people would welcome an unexpected flower delivery, but when a victim has quietly relocated to escape a stalker, that flower delivery can be a terrifying and threatening message that the perpetrator has found them.

Victims may not explicitly say they are fearful, but their behavior often shows they feel fear; victims often change their behavior, routines, friendships, and lives because of the stalker’s pattern of behavior. Research has found that most stalkers target people they know, and the majority of stalkers are intimate partners or acquaintances who often have significant and personal knowledge about the victim’s vulnerabilities and fears.

Common stalking behaviors include—but are not limited to—repeated unwanted phone calls and messages, showing up when not invited, following, surveillance, spreading rumors, and threats.

Stalking is a dangerous and devastating victimization in its own right and often intersects with physical and sexual violence. Studies have found that stalking increases the risk of intimate partner homicide by three times, and 1 in 5 stalkers use weapons to threaten or harm victims. According to The Toll of Stalking: The relationship Between Features of Stalking and Psychopathology Victims and a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, survivors often suffer anxiety, social dysfunction, and severe depression as a result of their victimization, and many lose time from work and/or relocate. Stalking can impact every aspect of a survivor’s life, yet many victims, families, service providers, criminal and civil justice professionals, and the general public underestimate its danger and urgency.

Why Should Campuses Analyze Their Responses to Stalking?

Young adults aged 18-24 experience the highest rates of victimization, and more than a third of lifetime victims are first stalked between these ages, according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. Since entering college, 6-39% of college students say they’ve been stalked, but campuses rarely identify stalking at such rates. Similarly, 43% of college victims who meet the legal criteria of stalking do not identify their experience as “stalking,” according to The Intersection of Stalking and Sexual Assault Among Emerging Adults. And while 92% of college victims tell friends and/or family about the unwanted pursuit behaviors, only 29% contact a program or resource for help.

This means it is vital for universities to appropriately address stalking on campus and ensure services are accessible to all victims. Despite its prevalence, stalking is often misunderstood and rarely identified by victim support services, legal systems, and/or by victims themselves. Victims are sometimes unsure if what they are experiencing violates campus conduct codes, Title IX, or criminal statutes. Campus programs and resources rarely broach the topic of stalking to the same degree that they address sexual and dating violence; many students are not made aware of what stalking is and that resources are available, mandated reporters have little training on how to identify it, and the professionals tasked with responding often have little training on how to do so. Students should receive the same Title IX accommodations for stalking as they do for sexual violence and intimate partner/dating violence, but this is often not well understood.

Most stalking on campus is student-to-student. While intimate partner stalking is a significant issue, stalkers on campus are actually more likely to be acquaintances (classmates, friends, or someone else whom the victim recognizes) than intimate partners. This reality that the majority of stalking on campus is not intimate partner related further compounds the confusion, as most campus resources explicitly or implicitly focus on sexual and dating violence. For example, a student being stalked by an estranged friend or classmate may not find it intuitive to approach the Title IX office or other gender-based violence resources. While most stalking on campus is perpetrated by student peers, anyone can be a victim or perpetrator. Policies and services should address faculty, staff, and others unassociated with campus.

Victimizations Often Intersect

Stalking often co-occurs with intimate partner and sexual violence, and can be an indicator of other forms of violence. When an intimate or dating partner repeatedly engages in physical, emotional, psychological, or sexual abuse against a victim, that pattern of abuse (and each individual incident that makes up the pattern) may also be stalking—if it would cause a reasonable person to feel fear or emotional distress. Stalking is often part of the coercive control tactics used by intimate partner violence offenders to exert power and control over victims. When intimate partners engage in behaviors like excessive contact, surveillance, showing up uninvited, and/or hacking online accounts, these behaviors are intimate partner abuse and stalking. This type of behavior can happen before, during, and/or after an intimate relationship.

While all stalkers can be dangerous, intimate partner stalkers are the most likely to be threatening and violent, followed by acquaintance stalkers, and then strangers. In addition, abusive partners who stalk are more likely (than abusive partners who do not stalk) to verbally degrade, threaten, use a weapon to attack, sexually assault, and/or physically injure their victims. The intersection of stalking and intimate partner/dating violence makes it vital to address stalking within responses to intimate partner and dating violence.

Stalking offenders may use sexual violence as part of a stalking course of conduct, and recognizing this connection can help responders provide more comprehensive responses to more effectively serve victims. Fear is a key element of stalking and fear of sexual assault is covered under most stalking statutes and policies. Sexual violence as stalking behaviors includes gathering information to plan a sexual assault, monitoring a victim after a sexual assault, voyeurism, sexual harassment, nonconsensual distribution of intimate images, indecent exposure, spreading sexual rumors about a victim, threats of sexual violence or sharing sexual information, and more. Visit SPARC’s website for more examples and information.

Stalking Is Dangerous

Stalking is a prevalent and dangerous victimization that too often goes unidentified, leaving victims without the particular supports they need and allowing stalkers to avoid accountability for the full extent of their crimes. It is often misrepresented as merely frustrating or annoying rather than being recognized as the traumatic and dangerous victimization that it truly is. Stalking can be an indicator of an urgent, volatile, risky situation. Generally, the more access to and information about the victim that the offender has, the more dangerous and threatening they can—and are likely to—be. Stalking frequently co-occurs with other victimizations and is a risk factor for homicide.

Responders Often Don’t See the Patterns

By definition, stalking is a pattern of behavior that includes multiple (and often varied) tactics. Too often, these behaviors are assessed as isolated incidents rather than being identified as pieces of larger patterns of behavior. Different responders are often left with different pieces of the puzzle and without the full picture. Victims may only tell certain responders about particular incidents unless the responders ask for more information. For example, even when all actions are perpetrated by the same offender, a victim may report a gun threat to local law enforcement, voyeurism to a rape crisis center, constant calls and text messages to a residential advisor, and harassing behavior to an academic department. Without coordination, these complaints stay in silos and are never recognized as the course of conduct that is stalking.

Many campuses already have a coordinated campus response for sexual violence and/or intimate partner violence, and stalking should have a similar response. A coordinated response on campus brings together key players—from public safety/campus police, student affairs, residential life, Title IX, and more—to work together to support victims and hold offenders accountable. With victim confidentiality and privacy in mind, sharing information, policies, protocols, strategies, and training, campuses can more successfully organize each office’s response to be more effective, holistic, and synchronized.

Screening for stalking, discussing cases, and having partners to turn to can help connect the dots to better understand a victim’s situation, increase support for victims with more comprehensive responses, improve safety for the broader campus community, and more effectively hold offenders accountable with appropriate measures.

Victims Need a Holistic Response

Since stalking victims experience a wide range of behaviors that affect many parts of their lives, they often need multiple different types of support. Whether the entryway is through residential life, public safety/campus police, student affairs, Title IX, or campus code of conduct, a multi-disciplinary team can help connect victims’ interactions with multiple systems so that whomever first identifies the situation as stalking has relationships with partners to help provide a coordinated, holistic response.

Students often disclose to people whom they trust, regardless of that person’s official title or relationship. For that reason, faculty as well as campus staff who oversee student activities (such as athletics coaches, musical directors, etc.) should also have some basic understanding of stalking victimization, how to respond to disclosures, and what resources are available to students. It’s also vital to make sure that all mandated reporters understand the basics of stalking and that they are required to report any incidents to the Title IX office.

For more information on coordinating a holistic campus response to stalking, visit SPARC’s website.

How Can Campus Responders Identify Stalking?

When describing their experiences, stalking victims may not use the word “stalking” or express fear. They’re more likely to say something like, “my ex won’t leave me alone,” “someone at my internship is bothering me,” or “my professor creeps me out.”

It is important to remember that many stalkers use more than one means of contact, communication, or approach, and behaviors may change and escalate over time. Documenting all stalking behavior, no matter how minor it appears, will be essential to a stalking victim’s case. Stalkers often try to argue that their behavior is based on a legitimate purpose, is a coincidence, or is not itself criminal behavior or against campus policy. It is critical to ask victims about the context of the situation to learn why they are afraid or distressed and to determine if a reasonable person in that situation would be afraid. When the offender targets a victim with specific incidents or tactics that the victim finds frightening, this can be evidence of the offender’s intent to frighten them.

To identify behaviors that may be part of a stalking course of conduct, it is helpful to group them into SLII strategies: Surveillance, Life invasion, Intimidation, and Interference through sabotage or attack.

  • SURVEILLANCE is the most commonly identified stalking tactic and includes watching, following, monitoring, and gathering information about the victim, in-person or through technology.
  • LIFE INVASION describes ways that the offender shows up in the victim’s life without the victim’s consent, in public or private settings, in-person, or through technology.
  • INTIMIDATION tactics must be considered within the context of the situation, with the totality of stalking behaviors and the victim and offender’s relationship and history in mind. Threats can be explicit or implicit. Actions or communications that may be innocuous in a different context may become menacing due to their repetitiveness or intrusiveness, or because of the history of violence in the relationship between stalker and victim.
  • INTERFERENCE THROUGH SABOTAGE OR ATTACK can affect everything from the victim’s reputation to their employment and/or physical safety. A common and significant consequence is victims losing financial resources and other resources, a loss that can quickly spiral.

Common examples of these four strategies are listed here, but it is not an exhaustive list. Remember that stalkers are creative in the pervasive ways they monitor, surveil, contact, control, and isolate victims, as well as the ways they damage victims’ credibility or reputation. To learn more about SLII behaviors and questions to ask victims and offenders to help identify stalking, visit SPARC’s website.

Stalkers Use Various Approaches

Stalking can take on specific tactics—and implications—when abusers identify victim characteristics that they can exploit as part of the abuse. For example, a stalker might threaten to out an LGBTQ+ victim, threaten to get an immigrant victim deported, or use anti-semitic slurs to frighten a Jewish victim. A stalker might deliberately target someone with identities that they are biased against.

Since every person has multiple and overlapping identities, a stalker might target victims based on multiple characteristics, including LGBTQ+ identity, immigration status, people of certain faith communities, or people of certain racial or ethnic backgrounds. Stalking may also precede or intersect with hate crimes.

For more information, visit SPARC’s website.

Perpetrators Often Use Technology to Stalk Their Victims

The impact of technology-facilitated stalking is vast and just as invasive, threatening, and fear-inducing as in-person stalking. Also called “cyber-stalking” or “online harassment,” the technologies and tactics used by abusers in technology-facilitated stalking constantly evolve and may seem impossible or unrealistic when you first hear about them, but stalkers are creative and often go to great lengths to terrorize victims.

Stalkers may use phones, computers, tablets, software, the internet, email, social media, messaging applications, smart home devices, recording devices, tracking devices, or other digital electronic devices and software to facilitate their behavior. Stalkers are pervasive in the ways they monitor, surveil, contact, control, and isolate victims, as well as the ways they damage victims’ credibility or reputation. Visit SPARC’s website for specific technology-facilitated stalking behaviors to discuss with victims and be ready to respond to.

More than 80% of stalking victims experience some type of technology-facilitated stalking. Technology-facilitated stalking works in the same way as stalking in the physical world. In fact, many offenders combine their technology abuse activities with in-person forms of stalking and harassment, such as phoning the victim and going to the victim’s home. Stalkers may use the internet to locate or target the victim (as well as use tracking software/devices); to distribute personal information, photos, or videos of victims to harass, intimidate, threaten, or humiliate the victim; and/or to encourage others to contact or harm the victim. Stalkers may use real photos or videos of the victim, or edit or create (deepfake) them. Stalkers may also use voice imitation technologies to harass victims or to impersonate victims and contact others.

When working with victims of technology-facilitated stalking, always consider the victim’s use of technology as a method of support as well as the stalker’s use of technology as a method of abuse. The Tech Safety Project has a toolkit for survivors, information on safety planning, and more.

What Prevention and Awareness Education Can Colleges Provide?

Campuses often have robust programs for dating abuse and/or sexual assault prevention and awareness, and these programs offer an incredible opportunity to increase knowledge about stalking on campus. Educators need specific training on identifying stalking behaviors, ways to add this topic into existing programming, and ideas for new programming to raise awareness around stalking.

They can provide outreach and education on stalking; incorporate it into existing programs (new student orientations, peer educators, sexual assault awareness month, domestic violence awareness month, etc.); organize National Stalking Awareness Month events in January; and develop new programming specifically around stalking. They can use SPARC’s Campus Workshop, Tips for Prevention/Awareness Educators, Tips for Campus Public Awareness Campaigns, Public Awareness Videos, and more.

What Tools Can Help Build a Successful Campus Response to Stalking?

Every campus partner can benefit from tools to help them identify and respond to stalking. Some of SPARC’s key resources for campuses are listed below.

Julia Holtemeyer is a resource and training specialist at the Stalking, Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center (SPARC). This project was supported by Grant No. 15JOVW-22-GK-03986-MUMU awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed in this publication/program/exhibition are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women.

Citations (also linked in article):

  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. 34 C.F.R. §106.30
  • Smith, S.G., Basile, K.C., & Kresnow, M. (2022). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2016/2017 Report on Stalking. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease control and Prevention.
  • Spencer, C.M. & Stith, S.M. (2018). Risk Factors for Male Perpetration and Female Victimization of Intimate Partner Homicide: A Meta-Analysis. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse 21(3): 527-540.
  • Mohandie, K., Meloy, J.R., McGowan, M.G., & Williams, J. (2006).  The RECON Typology of Stalking: Reliability and Validity Based upon a Large Sample of North American Stalkers. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 51 (1), 147-155.
  • Blaauw, E., Arensman, E., Winkel, F.W., Freeve, A., & Sheridan, L. (2002). The Toll of Stalking. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 17(1): 50-63.
  • Baum, K., Catalano, S., & Rand, M. (2009).  Stalking Victimization in the United States. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  • Smith, S.G., Zhang, X., Basile, K.C., Merrick, M.T., Wang, J., Kresnow, M., & Chen, J. (2018). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2015 Data Brief. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/2015data-brief508.pdf
  • Cantor, D., Fisher, B., Chibnall, S., Madden, K. (2020). Report on the AAU campus climate survey on sexual assault and misconduct. Westat. https://www.aau.edu/sites/default/files/AAU-Files/Key-Issues/Campus-Safety/Revised%20Aggregate%20report%20%20and%20appendices%201-7_(01-16-2020_FINAL).pdf
  • Demers, J. M., K. Ward, S., Walsh, W. A., L. Banyard, V., Cohn, E. S., Edwards, K. M., & Moynihan, M. M. (2017). Disclosure on campus: Students’ decisions to tell others about unwanted sexual experiences, intimate partner violence, and stalking. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 27(1), 54-75. DOI: 10.1080/10926771.2017.1382631
  • Fedina, L., Backes, B. L., Sulley, C., Wood, L., & Busch-Armendariz, N. (2020). Prevalence and sociodemographic factors associated with stalking victimization among college students. Journal of American College Health, 68(6), 624-630. , DOI: 10.1080/07448481.2019.1583664
  • Brady, P. Q. & Woodward Griffin, V. (2019). The Intersection of Stalking and Sexual Assault Among Emerging Adults: Unpublished Preliminary Results, mTurk Findings, 2018.
  • Cantor, supra ii.
  • Mohandie, supra iv.

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