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The Seriousness of Stalking

October 8, 2012

WASHINGTON – In 2005, a female college student filed a report with the campus police saying she was being stalked. The department’s only investigator left the next day for six months of post-surgery leave, and the case fell through the cracks. When the investigator returned to work, she checked in on the status of the student. After moving four times to escape her stalker, who would post her address in Craigslist ads soliciting oral sex, she withdrew with only a term left to graduation.

Terrible as that story (from an unnamed institution) is, shared here by one of a few dozen campus safety officials and student affairs professionals at an event Friday, it could have been far worse.

As safety issues go, stalking generally isn’t high on the list of concerns among university police, student affairs officials and health center staff. But it should be a priority, says Gary J. Margolis, a former campus police chief at the University of Vermont who made his case here Friday at a one-day conference commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Clery Center for Security on Campus.

Consider the surveys and research: More than 13 percent of women report having been stalked in college. Eighty-one percent of victims who were stalked by an intimate partner also report physical abuse. And 54 percent of female murder victims reported stalking to police before their stalkers killed them – while 76 percent of all those murdered were stalked at least once in the 12 months prior to their death.

“The link between stalking and dying is real, and it’s significant,” said Margolis, who is now a managing partner at Margolis Healy, a campus safety consulting firm.

People under the age of 25 experience stalking at the highest rates. And when students do report being stalked, 80 percent of the time they choose to contact campus police – not city or state law enforcement.

“What does that tell you we should be doing?” Margolis asked everyone in the room. “We’ve got to train them.”

But the very nature of stalking – repeated harassing or threatening behavior that puts another person in fear – makes it non-conducive, almost, to police work, in which “You get a call, there’s a problem, you go, you deal with it and you leave. It’s incident-focused, it’s not pattern-focused.”

“This is a problem.”

These days, much of what a stalked college student experiences happens over social media – threatening or intimidating Facebook messages, tweets, etc. (And the recent trend of “checking in” to bars, restaurants or wherever when students are out and about can actually help a stalker locate the victim.) One official in the room said she never even gets reports of physical stalking anymore, just digital stalking.

“It has a lot of the same characteristics of stalking as we once knew it,” Margolis said, “but it seems more aggressive.”

Also problematic is the fact that the specific acts perpetrated by a stalker are often legal – standing on a street corner, for instance. State statutes vary as to what constitutes stalking, from only one documented incident to multiple instances with multiple victims. And to top it all off, a student might not even realize she’s being victimized. (Nearly 80 percent of stalking victims are women. And contrary to "Fatal Attraction" lore, the one in five men who are victimized are typically stalked by other men. The movie got one thing right, though: the stalker is often a scorned ex-lover.)

“Her not getting it may just be because she doesn’t understand,” Margolis said. “So the question becomes, how can we give her the information to help her understand how serious of a threat she’s facing?”

Margolis would like to see officers better trained in “how to investigate fear” – what it looks like, how it manifests and where it could be originating. And while higher education officials are starting to talk about stalking more, awareness still needs to grow.

“It’s the one area of gender and sexual violence that has a direct correlation to death,” Margolis said. “You’ve got to take stalking seriously.”

 

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