Colleges Can Now Target An Overlooked Factor In Sexual Assault: Stalking
By Casey Quinlan
A history of stalking is an alarm bell for other crimes to come. Before abusers and predators begin exercising control over their victims in other ways, such as through dating violence and sexual assault, and in some cases, the victim’s death, they have likely stalked them.
Eighteen to 24 year olds experience the highest rates of stalking, according to a 2011 National Intimate Partner Violence and Sexual Violence Survey. That makes the awareness and reporting of stalking even more important for universities. Sexual assault on campuses has received a lot of attention, and for good reason, but stalking and dating violence are also terrorizing experiences, and tend to intersect with sexual assault cases, yet both have received little national attention in the debate over how to keep students safe on campus.
“We find that these issues are intersecting because most victims are experiencing other kinds of violence, so you have dating violence that is happening along with stalking or stalking that is happening pre- or post-sexual assault,” said Michelle Garcia, director of the Stalking Resource Center out of the National Center for Victims of Crime.
Historically, colleges haven’t had the same awareness of these crimes, advocates say, but that may change soon. The Campus SaVE Act, sponsored by Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey (D), which passed Congress in 2013 and went into effect last week, is designed to ensure that there is more awareness of stalking and dating violence, and that victims know they have confidentiality and are able to document these crimes. This also means colleges will have to do more prevention, reporting and improve their response to sexual assault, dating violence and stalking.
Three-fourths of women who have experienced stalking-related behaviors experienced other kinds of victimization, according to a 2007 Journal of Criminal Justice paper. The largest percentage of combined abusive behaviors were those experiencing experiencing stalking and rape/sexual assault, at 26 percent of women who were stalked.
Cindy Southworth, executive vice president and founder of Safety Net Technology Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, works with campus officers, police officers and campus counselors, to help authorities and support groups better understand the importance of online stalking and how to investigate these crimes. Southworth says awareness of stalking is improving but officer turnover makes it difficult to ensure everyone is trained properly to deal with cases of stalking, both online and off.
“I think universities across the board have a lot more that they can do, and they are also doing a lot more than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Part of it is, it’s going to be not only be the kind of campus, but which officer is on duty, and training is an ongoing dilemma. We’ve trained over 70,000 campus officers, police officers, victim advocates [since inception in 2002] but there’s turnover, so training is a constant need, so what we’re excited about is new regulations and requirements put so much higher priority on staff and training,” Southworth said.
The legislation was part of the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization. Members of Congress worked closely with the Clery Center for Security on Campus, the One Love Foundation, National Network to End Domestic Violence and the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, and more than 20 other organizations to craft the bill. The act requires colleges to provide programs that make students and new employees aware of dating violence, sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking, offer information on prevention and define those crimes.
One of the things advocates say will make a substantial difference in the lives of students experiencing stalking, domestic violence and sexual assault is the legislation’s requirements to explain to victims how to preserve evidence, who to report crimes to, the victim’s rights and college’s responsibilities for orders of protection and their right to confidentiality. The last provision is especially important because students have been dissuaded from reporting to campus police and other university authorities out of fear of the possible repercussions once that information spread to peers.
“That’s vital,” Southworth said on the confidentiality requirement. “In the off-campus world, you’ve known for 40 years that when you go to a domestic advocacy center or hotline that your communication is completely confidential, so if police call up, they say they don’t know who victim is and have never heard of her before,” Southworth said. “We’ve seen reporting used to punish the victim for telling their story. This very clearly stipulates that colleges must provide confidentiality and notifies them of that.”
In addition stalking being more prevalent on college campuses, crimes such as domestic violence and sexual assault can be more difficult to report in college, where your community is even smaller. Southworth said that although many of the barriers and challenges women face in college are similar to those women face outside college, they’re “on steroids” in a college setting, especially if you’re an LGBT student.
An example of that would be a victim and perpetrator’s peer groups, so in a situation where you have intertwined peer groups, where everyone is involved in athletics or student government, it makes it extremely hard and break the silence and ask the university and your friends to keep you safe,” Southworth said. “If you have a same-sex partner, it’s even more challenging because it’s already a small and marginalized community on the campus, and speaking out means you lose a lot of friends and it can be extremely isolating.”
Garcia said that it’s important for advocates to stop focusing on one issue at a time and give equal attention to crimes such as domestic violence and stalking, because it tends to go unnoticed as a crime that, like sexual assault, is often underreported. Stalking in particular is also not as noticeable as other crimes, because a behavior may not obviously read as stalking when another college student has as much of a right to be on campus as another.
“I think the lens has to be just a little bit wider, because we see very similar rates of domestic and dating violence and of stalking and historically, within the violence against women movement, we’ve been very siloed in our approaches,” Garcia said. “It’s been challenging because seemingly harmless behaviors like texting someone repeatedly is not a crime in and of itself or maybe they’re waiting outside of class. But it’s a public university and they’re allowed to be there. It just hasn’t been on the radar of administrators and responders at universities but with the changes, campuses are compelled to do something to address these crimes when they’re occurring.”