Center for Injury Research and Prevention

Stalking is a Form of Violence That Must Be Taken Seriously, Especially on College Campuses

February 21, 2019

In October, Lauren McCluskey, 21, was murdered by a former boyfriend who had been stalking her. The University of Utah senior had ended her relationship with a 37-year-old man who then began sending her harassing texts and emails. The man shot and killed McCluskey before later turning the gun on himself.

It has been reported that Lauren contacted campus authorities and local police in the weeks leading up to her death. However, as Lauren’s story tragically highlights, stalking among current and former intimate partners can quickly escalate to severe forms of physical and even fatal violence; stalking is a pervasive and too often underreported (or under-recognized) form of intimate partner or dating violence.

Defining Stalking

Stalking can include a diverse range of behaviors such as:

  • Receiving unwanted letters, phone calls, emails, or text messages
  • Being followed or watched
  • Being approached unwantedly in ways that make an individual fear for her or his safety.

In the age of social media, unwanted and/or threatening calls, emails, text messages, and online postings can make it particularly difficult to escape stalking behaviors and make victims feel that no space is physically safe from being pursued.

A number of issues can make protecting victims from stalkers more difficult. In the absence of physical harm, when victims disclose stalking behaviors, authorities may be unclear about how to best respond and ensure victims’ safety. Further, some victims may not immediately perceive stalking behaviors as threatening or feel embarrassed to disclose that they cannot stop the unwanted pursuit. Every individual’s level of perceived safety is different, further complicating when contact efforts have become threatening.

Victimization on Campus

Of particular concern is stalking on college and university campuses. Our prior work found that:

  • Stalking victimization was the most commonly reported form of relationship violence among undergraduate students with 1 in 6 students surveyed experiencing stalking victimization since beginning college.
  • Stalking can occur both inside and outside the context of intimate relationships, with students reporting stalking behaviors perpetrated by friends/acquaintances, strangers, and intimate partners. 
  • We also observed stalking victimization to be reported by both female and male students, highlighting the need for universal interventions to support all students.

Because stalking behaviors may be more covert than other more commonly discussed forms of relationship violence (such as physical or sexual assault), enhancing efforts to provide education to adolescents and young adults regarding the range of behaviors that may represent unhealthy relationships is imperative. For trusted adults, such as parents, healthcare providers, or teachers, taking disclosures of perceived stalking behaviors seriously is critical, particularly given that stalking may escalate to severe forms of further violence. Integrating independent assessment of stalking victimization into existing inquiries of relationship violence among adolescents and young adults will help to establish recognition of stalking as an unhealthy and unsafe relationship behavior.

Handling Disclosures of Stalking

Disclosures of stalking victimization must be taken seriously and victims should have access to resources and support to ensure their ongoing safety.  Establishing physical safety is particularly challenging given the nature of electronic stalking behaviors. Thus, efforts to help adolescents and young adults understand how social media, email, and text messages may be used to perpetuate stalking are critical. While being constantly connected to friends, family, and loved ones can provide a degree of safety, these same technologies can be used to perpetuate violence. 

Continued efforts to highlight the burden of stalking in adolescent and young adult relationships are essential.  Critical to this is helping emerging adults begin to recognize:  

  • What is a healthy relationship?
  • What are personal boundaries regarding contact?  For example, how often do you want to communicate? How much time do you want to spend together? What are expectations for responding to phone calls, text messages, or other contact attempts?
  • Where can one seek help? Local community-based organizations can help victims create safety plans and manage legal responses to stalking violence. Locally, CHOP has partnered with the Domestic Violence Program at Lutheran Settlement House to provide access to advocacy and support services for victims of relationship violence.

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