Addressing Stalking on Campus

Stalking is a serious crime, and it may be more common on your campus than you think.
By Kathleen Washburn

According to the Stalking Resource Center of the National Center for Victims of Crime, people associated with colleges and universities are more likely to be stalked than those outside academia. Often an underreported crime, stalking can involve a range of threatening behaviors exhibited in person and through e-mail, social media, and other technologies. Such harassment can have significant adverse effects on the victim’s academic or job performance as well as on his or her physical and mental health. Whether a particular case impedes a student’s educational opportunities or sparks concern about potential workplace violence, stalking is a threat that calls for sustained attention and clear institutional resources dedicated to prevention, education, and practical support for victims.

Though stalking does not necessarily lead to physical violence, it is a serious crime. The Oxford English Dictionary defines stalking as “the action, practice, or crime of harassing or persecuting a person with unwanted, obsessive, and usually threatening attention over an extended period of time.” Although most people associate stalking with intimate partner violence, victims do not necessarily have a romantic history with perpetrators. Stalking cases in academic settings may involve the dynamics of students living on campus and relationships between students and advisers that extend for years; they may also be facilitated by easy public access to the buildings and open spaces of colleges and universities. Like efforts to reduce sexual violence on campus, measures to address stalking in higher education may include campus or criminal investigations, victim support services, and broader efforts to raise awareness. In a legal context, Title IX protections may be particularly relevant for defining how colleges and universities provide a safe campus environment for all students.

At my institution, a professor and a graduate student were killed by a person with a prior conviction for stalking. Although the double homicide took place off campus, the crime continues to have a major impact on the university community. In the same year my colleague was killed, I faced threatening behavior from a former student, a situation that led to police involvement. Since then, I’ve been surprised to learn how many friends and colleagues—adjuncts, professors, postdocs—have faced similar problems. Even if colleges and universities do not have clear and specific policies about stalking, most institutions offer useful resources to address harassment or potential violence. The key, of course, is being aware of those resources and drawing on them when needed.

My case began with anonymous letters and gifts delivered to my campus mailbox, often several months apart. I suspected that they had come from a former student who had had an extended e-mail exchange with administrators about the university policy on faculty-student relationships; he also published a similar letter in the campus newspaper. Although the incidents were unsettling, at first they seemed like a minor nuisance. As a female professor, I was annoyed at being confronted with yet another instance of gender-based harassment and was concerned about graduate instructors who reported problems with the same student.

Thanks to the advice of a friend, I saved the growing pile of letters and notes in case the problem continued. I still had no proof of the perpetrator’s identity, but I began to run into my former student at the library, in the department hallway, at the student union. I soon learned that many people do not consider stalking to be a “real” crime and are quick to defend open access to public universities in particular. No one should be profiled as a potential criminal simply for going about his or her daily business; establishing a pattern of harassment involves much more than an eager student’s repeated visits to office hours or the coincidence of overlapping schedules.

The legal threshold for stalking usually entails both a “course of conduct” by the perpetrator and a “standard of fear” for the victim. Yet one of my colleagues suggested that giving in to fear was the real problem, a perspective that focuses far too much on the emotional state of the person being targeted. Given the high rate of stalking on campus, concerns about it should never be dismissed. Stalking is not simply a personal matter. It is an issue of campus safety.

In my case, the contacts became more frequent and included increasingly disturbing messages. When I received a signed letter that was hand-delivered to my home (an unlisted address), I felt physically unsafe. Soon after, the former student admitted in an e-mail to following me on multiple occasions, both on and off campus. Police officers told me that in cases like mine, when there is no past relationship or child-custody dispute, stalking can be particularly dangerous. Instead of learning the names of new students at the beginning of the semester, I found myself planning an escape route from each classroom, memorizing the location of emergency “blue-light” phones around campus, and rearranging my work schedule to avoid following a predictable routine. I managed to keep up with all of my teaching and service responsibilities but struggled to focus on research and writing. I suffered from insomnia and increasing anxiety after a home break-in and constantly worried about being followed or attacked.

Now, after more than a year without incident, my stalking case finally seems to be resolved. The perpetrator was banned from campus for a calendar year, even after graduation. But for anyone facing a similar threat, here are some practical suggestions about how to stay safe from stalking on and off campus:

  1. Be aware of potential dangers. If a person’s behavior is disturbing or even vaguely alarming, take immediate measures to protect yourself. Hold office hours when other colleagues are in the area. Stick to campus routes that are popular and safe. Use campus security to escort you to and from class, especially in the evening. Keep a cell phone with you and check in with your spouse or a friend when you leave campus and arrive home.
  2. Document each incident and form of contact. Building a file for a formal complaint or a potential criminal case is essential. Do not negotiate with the stalker. Make it clear to the person that he or she is not to contact you under any circumstances, and keep track of any subsequent communications. Keep print and digital copies of all e-mails. Also save any e-mails with campus police or administrators to document events that may extend over a semester, a year, or even longer; keeping a record of the university information trail and any subsequent investigation is helpful in addition to documenting the original harassment.
  3. Notify the dean of students. The dean of students oversees a range of student issues, including forms of disruptive or threatening behavior. Everyone on campus is subject to the university’s code of conduct, including employees, former students, and guests.
  4. Inform your program director or department chair and dean. Convey any concerns you may have and get information about available campus resources. My department supervisor was supportive long before the situation escalated to criminal stalking, and the dean’s office also took my case seriously, in part because of the murders the previous year. If you don’t have a supportive mentor, chair, or dean, contact the office of equal opportunity to learn more about workplace rights and safety. Again, keep a record of every e-mail exchange, conversation, and meeting.
  5. Consult campus and local police. Filing an official police report is an important step in building a legal case against a stalker. Even if your case never involves formal charges, the campus police can be an excellent resource. The university detective ran a background check on the stalker, helped me devise a safety plan, and even patrolled my neighborhood for suspicious persons. The campus chief of police met with me individually to devise a safety plan; she also gave me her cell phone number and followed up with me on several occasions. Some of her suggestions were impractical, such as requiring students to sign in at the department office before meeting me for individual conferences, but tips about driving precautions and neighborhood support were extremely helpful. The local police department was less responsive to my case, though officers at the substation talked with me at length when I filed a report in person. Bring copies of all the materials you have collected to include in the police report. Although many police departments include a stalking unit, detectives may respond only if there is a credible and imminent threat to your safety or the safety of others—or, unfortunately, after another crime has been committed. Whether or not you plan to press charges, the local police may decide to speak to the suspect in person about your complaint.
  6. Consider legal action. Another option is a cease-and-desist letter from a lawyer. In some cases, such formal or official contact through an intermediary may deescalate the situation. This approach may be particularly appealing to people who hesitate to involve the police. Filing a restraining order or order of protection is important if the case ever leads to criminal charges. Recognize, however, that while an order of protection is useful for law enforcement, it cannot ensure your personal safety. In fact, in many cases, the threat of violence is highest after a victim files for legal protection. You need to evaluate all of your options and decide what works best for you. If the case moves forward as a criminal matter, be aware of the evidentiary standards for prosecuting stalking and the punishment for conviction in your state. In some cases, the first charge of stalking is a misdemeanor and the second constitutes a felony. Other charges, such as trespassing, breaking and entering, or assault, may apply as well. A few states allow for civil charges of stalking in addition to criminal prosecution.
  7. Cultivate a support network. Talk to friends, family members, neighbors, and perhaps a mental health professional to make your case known and to help cope with the daily stress and long-term challenges. I was surprised to learn that some people do not understand how or why stalking is a crime, but most will be helpful and supportive. Since women are more likely to be stalked than men, agencies focusing on women’s health and domestic violence often provide useful resources.
  8. Educate the campus community. Students, staff, and faculty all can benefit from learning about what to do when faced with stalking. Following the double homicide at my institution, campus leaders organized a conference on interpersonal violence. My institution also regularly offers workshops on handling disruptive student behavior, though such sessions rarely address extreme cases of harassment or stalking. Many colleges and universities organize relevant campus programs in January during National Stalking Awareness Month. For more information about current legislation, victim services, and legal rights, visit the Stalking Resource Center through the National Center for the Victims of Crime (http://www.ncvc.org/src). The website includes specific information about stalking on campus; training materials; and anti-stalking laws for each state, under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and for various Native American tribal nations.
  9. Leave. Moving out of your home is an extreme measure but one that may be necessary for your safety or peace of mind. I was able to stay with friends for several weeks during the semester and later left the state for a research fellowship. Being away from home for extended periods was often inconvenient but ultimately proved to be the right decision.
    If the situation continues to be stressful, frightening, or difficult to manage—and certainly if the stalking continues—then it is entirely reasonable to look for another job. One friend at another institution left an otherwise-rewarding position because a senior colleague continued to stalk her and vandalized her lab. In the face of escalating threats or violent behavior, all options need to be on the table.

These days I am recharged and able to focus on my research without fear or distraction. I still enjoy teaching but remain wary of disclosing any personal information in class. I have great respect for my colleagues who invite students to their homes for a final class or celebratory dinner but doubt that I would feel comfortable doing so in the near future. For now, I hope to continue to see the campus as a safe place where research and teaching are my main concerns. Even so, I remain acutely aware of how people on campus work in a very public environment where an individual’s office location, office hours, and class schedule can be accessed online with ease.

If you are facing a potential case of stalking, don’t blame yourself. Don’t think that there is nothing you can do. Do trust your instincts, get help, and take positive steps to stay safe. And if someone you know is worried about stalking, speak up, provide whatever support you can, and follow up over time. The average period for stalking behavior is two years, and the strain of dealing with such continued threats with no clear end can take a serious emotional toll on the victim or victims.

With millions of people victimized by stalking each year, chances are that you may encounter someone on campus who is experiencing similar threats or harassment. Stalking is a crime, and colleges and universities can help make campus a safer place for everyone by addressing it through ongoing education and clear policies and practices for students, faculty, and administrators.

Kathleen Washburn is an assistant professor of American and Native American literature in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of New Mexico. Her e-mail address is washburn@unm.edu.

*This article is intended to be used for educational purposes and is not a substitute for legal or other professional advice.

 

 

 

 

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