Ignore at Your Own Risk

While stalking of faculty members by students is more common than many people realize, campus support -- even when it exists -- may be difficult to find, writes Anna Sher.

July 21, 2017
 
 
William S. Klug

Last summer a former graduate student shot and killed University of California, Los Angeles, professor William S. Klug in his office after months of lashing out at his former adviser online. The student had accused Klug of stealing his data, an accusation that a source who knew both Klug and his former student called “absolutely psychotic” in the Los Angeles Times.

The crisis at UCLA was especially chilling for me because I, too, am a professor who has been the target of cyberattacks by a former Ph.D. student who similarly claimed that I stole his data (among other accusations, including “attempted murder”). I have a permanent protection order against him, and he hasn’t harassed me since his arrest, but I’m still afraid, especially when shootings occur elsewhere. My perpetrator had no history of physical violence, but then, neither did the UCLA student and nor do many other campus shooters.

UCLA created a task force to look at security issues in response to the violence, but the question remains as to what universities should do before a situation escalates to a one involving a shooter on campus. It’s been estimated that stalkers become violent as much as 36 percent of the time.

The various definitions of stalking usually describe it as repeated, unwanted communication causing fear in the victim. That communication isn’t necessarily directly with the victim; in my case, the stalker contacted my research colleagues, students, granting agencies, professional organizations and publishers, among others. Stalking differs from harassment, which can be merely annoying. The impacts of stalking on the victim include anxiety, insomnia, social dysfunction and severe depression.

While only a small number of students ever physically attack faculty members, the incidence of psychological violence in the form of stalking is surprisingly high. According to one study, 22 percent to 57 percent of faculty members, depending on the campus, reported being stalked by students. Although only 1.4 percent of the general population report being stalked, this average for faculty is notably similar to the rate of stalking reported by therapists. Among faculty members who had been stalked, 17 percent reported incidents in which their life had been endangered or another faculty member had been killed. This study found that, unlike stalking within the general population, stalking of faculty is usually unrelated to any prior social relationship; 85 percent fell into categories of either delusional beliefs and/or revenge by the perpetrators. Of these, at least half appeared related to mental health issues. Faculty members who were stalked reported feelings of embarrassment, helplessness and stress-related health problems. They considered leaving the university and even divorced as a result of the stalking.

Cyberstalking in particular is alarmingly common on college campuses. It can include instant messaging, email, and online postings, social media and other forms. One terrifying account of cyberstalking of an instructor by a former student was described by James Lasdun in Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013). In Lasdun’s case, the harassment included the stalker impersonating Lasdun online.

Campus support for faculty members stalked by students may be difficult to find, even when it exists. It has been proposed that centers or offices for teaching and learning could play this role. In particular, they could provide direction for how to deal with situations that may lead to stalking as a matter of professional development or orientation. However, in a survey of 50 universities and 982 programs, less than 1 percent dealt with student-faculty interactions, including stalking.

Based on my own experience as a stalking victim, I’ve compiled a list of information that should be made readily available to all faculty members via courses, website resources and/or publications.

1. What stalking is and how your state defines it as a crime.

  • All 50 states have laws against stalking, but legal definitions of stalking vary with regard to requisite intent by the stalker and/or the emotional distress of the victim.
  • Stalking occurs not just between individuals who’ve had social contact with each other, nor is it restricted to direct contact or threats. Misunderstanding of this aspect was apparent when I requested a protection order; the form required that I select my relationship with the accused (e.g., former spouse, former girlfriend/boyfriend, former roommate, etc.).
  • No victim is ever to blame, period.

2. What resources for faculty members are available on campus.

  • Victim advocate services are not just for students. If there’s a formal process by which a faculty member can record a problem with a student, they should be encouraged to do so. We have an office with dedicated personnel at our campus that gave me information on stalking and accompanied me to campus security.
  • Campus safety is there to keep everyone safe, including faculty members, providing escort services and other help. At my university, this included a parking pass that minimized exposed time while walking to and from my car, and they posted fliers with a photo and other information when my perpetrator was released from custody.
  • Workers’ compensation includes support for psychological injury. These are more difficult to make than a physical injury claim but can be done if the injury is well documented and it was inflicted while performing necessary workplace functions.
  • The ombudsperson is an objective party specifically established to address problems between university employees, including students. This is also an important resource for faculty members in the event that they don’t feel their concerns about the stalking situation are being addressed.
  • Employee assistance programs provide limited free counseling sessions for employees. Information shared is completely confidential unless there’s a safety concern. Other offices on campus that may have relevant resources include but are not limited to: the Title IX office, human resources and the dean’s office that has authority over an academic unit. (In my case, the dean’s office was involved with both the faculty and student aspects of the stalking.) And, as mentioned before, centers for teaching and learning may provide training or other resources. For example, our university CTL provides a course and website on Managing Difficult Students/Situations.

3. What options are available off campus for faculty whom are being significantly impacted.

  • Filing a formal criminal complaint with the local police department. I had to file two, because the situation escalated over time. The local police determined that it met the criteria for a crime and investigated it, resulting in the district attorney’s office deciding that it warranted an arrest with a felony stalking charge.
  • If the stalking appears motivated by a bias against race, ethnicity, religion, disability, gender identity or sexual orientation, it may qualify as a hate crime. That is an important detail to convey to the police when making a report.
  • Filing a civil protection order request, which is separate from any criminal proceedings. This is a multistep process that involves a hearing before a judge; in my case, I needed legal representation by a lawyer.
  • Institutional policies on legal assistance should be made clear to victims up front. At many universities, the policy is to have legal counsel represent only the institution and faculty members as a whole, not individuals. I was able to get assistance for my protection order from two law students who worked on my case as a part of their education.
  • Many cities provide special resources for victims, including support groups, legal assistance and/or reimbursement for costs incurred by the crime (such as counseling, repaired or replaced property, and so on).

Finally, it is not enough for the above information to be available “somewhere.” All those with whom faculty members consult, such as human resource personnel and department chairs, must be familiar with it and be able to find it easily. That is not the case for the majority of higher education institutions currently, leaving affected faculty and staff members in a position of unnecessary vulnerability.

In 2012 an enraged former Ph.D. student of the University of Colorado killed 12 people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. Like my stalker, that student had failed his oral exams and had ultimately dropped out. Many have wondered whether the Aurora shooter could have been stopped; indeed, his psychiatrist contacted campus police with concerns a month before the shooting. How often such violence can be prevented cannot be known. Regardless, hundreds of targets of psychological violence can receive better support, and perhaps violence be avoided, if stalking cases can be recognized and addressed early.

Bio

Anna Sher is a professor in the department of biological sciences at the University of Denver.

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