Stalking on Campus: A Silent Epidemic
The first steps to combating stalking include taking it seriously, having an appropriate policy, and training campus personnel how to respond.
Editor’s Note: Although this article was originally published by Campus Safety in 2012, the information and tips provided still apply in 2023. Because a remarkably high rate of stalking, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence happens on college and K-12 campuses, as well as hospitals, this article serves as an important reminder to healthcare, school and higher education protection professionals and administrators.
Twenty-four people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States, and a significant portion of these individuals attend, are employed by or are patients of universities, K-12 districts and hospitals.
Readers should keep in mind that these crimes often intersect. A teen or young adult romantic relationship or a marriage/domestic partnership with a history of violence could escalate to one that includes stalking, sexual assault or both. Sexual assault, particularly among intimate partners or acquaintances, may have elements of stalking in it.
Stalkers Use Many Methods
Probably the least discussed or understood of these topics is stalking, and the definition of it varies from state to state and campus to campus. The most common ways offenders stalk is by unwanted phone calls, voicemails, text messages, spying, sending unwanted gifts, letters and E-mails and showing up uninvited to the victim’s location or waiting for him or her at a particular location.
Eighteen- to 24-year-olds have the highest rate of stalking victimization, says Michelle Garcia, director for the National Center for Victims of Crime’s Stalking Resource Center. “The rates of stalking on college campuses are higher than in the general population; similar to the rates of sexual assault.”
Indeed, of the six million stalking victims in the United States each year, more than half of the female survivors and more than one-third of the male survivors say the were stalked before the age of 25.
The motivations as to why stalkers stalk vary. In a relationship with a history of domestic violence, the offender might use stalking to regain or maintain the relationship and control of the victim. With sexual assault cases, stalking might take place before and/or after the incident. It also happens with unrequited affection or romantic rejection.
“The stalker thinks if they try hard enough, the other person will come back to them despite the person telling them they don’t want anything to do with them,” claims Garcia.
A student might even stalk a teacher or faculty member because of a bad grade or a crush.
Is the Behavior Immaturity or Stalking?
Unfortunately, the level of emotional maturity in adolescents and young adults can make the issue quite murky.
“There is this notion of developmentally appropriate pursuit behavior,” says Garcia. “There is some research that has looked at behaviors that are really typical of adolescents, such as having crushes on teachers, idolizing an actor or musician or someone in the public eye and having that person’s poster on their wall.
“It’s common [adolescent behavior] to happen to be at [the target of their affection’s] locker when they get out of class or going by a person’s house to see if they are home or calling them repeatedly and hanging up or asking their friends for information about them or looking at their Facebook page repeatedly. All of this is typical adolescent developmentally appropriate affection-seeking behavior, and rarely does the target experience fear in response to these behaviors.”
Evaluate Situations In Context
It can also look like stalking if not put in the proper context. It is important to view the behavior from the victim’s perspective. Behaviors that seem benign to an outsider might be terrifying to a victim.
“One thing to look at is has the victim or target attempted to set a boundary that this person continues to ignore?” Garcia explains. “Has the person been told by the target, a friend, police officer, HR, RA, etc. that the stalking behavior is not OK?”
Generally, a verbal and/or written warning can be issued to the offender. Another option is an order of protection. That said, Garcia warns, “With stalkers, we know there is a really high recidivism rate. Over 60% will reengage in the stalking behavior after an intervention and after they have been arrested or served with an order of protection.”
Identifying stalking, however, can be challenging, particularly for victims who often minimize the problem.
“If you think about any of those behaviors that are typical of stalking cases — the phone calls, showing up to places, the texts, the E-mails — many of those behaviors in and of themselves are not criminal behaviors,” says Garcia.
Victims, law enforcement and campus personnel must be able to recognize the pattern and course of conduct that would indicate the behavior is actually stalking.
Clear Policies, Training Can Help
One way a campus can help victims, administrators and public safety officials identify stalking is to have a clear and well-publicized policy that defines stalking and explains that it is not acceptable. Campuses must also encourage the reporting of incidents.
“Victims will come forward and report if they feel that they can do so safely, that they will be believed and that there will be a good and effective response,” Garcia says. “Campuses need to evaluate whether they are able to provide that. Do they have systems in place for victims to report? Is it clear where victims can report?”
Training of campus staff so they appropriately respond to a report is also critical. University, school and hospital personnel should take stalking seriously, and the response by staff must be consistent by all campus staff and public safety department officers.
“The first person the victim reports to, that person’s response can dramatically shape the trajectory the victim goes on,” Garcia claims. “If [the person receiving the report] is knowledgeable, sympathetic, responsive, appropriate and helpful, then the victim is more likely to continue engaging in the criminal justice system or school judicial system or whatever system is in place.”
Lip Service Can Backfire
Garcia believes the biggest mistake any campus can make with regard to stalking is not taking it seriously.
“We’ve found that most campuses that have a stalking policy tack the word ‘stalking’ onto an existing sexual assault or dating violence or anti-harassment policy but then never address stalking or any of its realities.”
For campuses that don’t have policies on stalking, the National Center for Victims of Crime Model Campus Stalking Policy can be downloaded for free.
Stalkers Often Use Technology
“National research from 2009 shows that a quarter of stalking victims report that some sort of technology was used, but I think those numbers are huge underestimates,” says Michelle Garcia, director for the National Center for Victims of Crime’s Stalking Resource Center. “When you look at the national study, it couldn’t ask about every form of technology. It didn’t ask about text messaging, which is a very common technology used to stalk.
“Also, for victims to say that technology was used against them they had to be aware of it. So many of these technologies can be used against victims without their knowledge. I can put a GPS tracker on someone’s car and see everywhere they go, and they will have no idea.”
Spyware can also be installed on a computer or phone.
It is for these reasons that Garcia urges campuses to increase awareness as to how offenders are misusing technology and educate their communities how to engage with that technology more safely. That means encouraging students, faculty, staff and patients to:
- Protect their phones and computers against spyware
- Use passwords
- Keep their cell phones with them at all times
- Notice if something strange is happening on their phone (the battery is draining too quickly)
- Not provide detailed information on social networking sites
- Follow guidelines on privacy and database management
- Additionally, campuses can work with their IT departments to provide documentation of cyber stalking behavior.
If you are a victim of sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at (800) 656-4673 or chat online at online.rainn.org for help. Additional resources for victims can be found here.
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