College and university campuses face new requirements to report on, respond to and prevent stalking, per the October 2014 revisions to the Clery Act.
Although the legal definition may vary within each state, the revised Clery Act defines stalking as “engaging in a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to: 1) fear for the person’s safety or the safety of others or 2) suffer substantial emotional distress.”
Stalking could include any of the following conduct:
- Making unwanted phone calls.
- Making threats.
- Showing up unexpectedly.
- Standing too close or trying to control personal space.
This type of conduct is already likely referred to a campus threat assessment and behavioral intervention team to assess the risk of violence and intervene if warranted. Campuses may find value in using these teams to evaluate stalking cases to assist in Title IX compliance.
Evaluate potential for violence
It doesn’t seem that a particular profile will accurately predict if someone will escalate from stalking to physical harm, just as there isn’t a complete profile of who will become the next active shooter on a college campus. However, BITs can identify and evaluate risk factors to help prevent escalation. Teams should provide annual training that covers the most recent research on risk factors associated with stalking that escalates to violence.
The motivations behind stalking include anger and jealousy triggered by rejection, loss or failure. Many BITs already consider these motivations as part of threat assessment, such as evaluating how former employees cope after termination and how students deal with failing a semester of classes.
BITs can also consider using instruments developed specifically for evaluating when a particular individual’s stalking behavior could escalate into violence.
Build a culture of reporting
Most stalking victims are stalked by someone they know, and often by a former intimate partner. Referrals to a BIT are most often made by someone who has more of an acquaintance-level relationship, such as faculty, staff or student leaders. Colleges must create a culture of reporting that allows and encourages reports of possible stalking to BITs — not just to campus police, victims’ services and Title IX coordinators.
The ability to assess and intervene greatly depends upon the amount of accurate information provided. Individuals might minimize a threat or stalking behavior because they don’t recognize it as cause for serious or immediate concern. Or the victims might try to address the issue themselves. Given the nature of stalking, BITs might have difficulty gathering enough information beyond what they can gather from interviewing the stalking victim or potential witnesses.
BITs are seeing more referrals resulting from virtual communication, including social media. Just as BITs can gain additional information about a suspected stalker from his social-media profiles, that same stalker can also use technology to make threats or learn more about possible victims in order to target them more effectively.
Reduce the risk
The risk-reduction programming required by the Clery Act can include offering students safety tips about how to keep their information private. And campus police can help BITs stay up-to-date with the information they can gather from online sources.
BIT threat assessment tools are usually designed to help evaluate the threat of targeted violence on a mass scale, such as a mass shooting or bombing. Because stalking typically involves fixation on one individual, the warning signs of escalation to violence might look different or be more difficult to detect than for mass violence. Case studies can help BITs determine if their assessment tools can effectively detect possible risk factors.
And BITs must still apply the difference between “making a threat” and “posing a threat” because stalking doesn’t always pose a risk of violence. For example, a student with autism who doesn’t accurately read social cues might follow and talk to another student, who then feels afraid because she perceives the student as threatening her.
But even if the BIT determines an actual threat doesn’t exist, the student conduct process, including Title IX remedies, mediation or counseling, can help to resolve the situation and put everyone at ease.
Consider measurements of success
Finally, it’s important to recognize that it might be impossible to determine if an intervention actually prevented a specific act of violence. However, the focus is on prevention, not prediction.
Rather than measuring success solely by an absence of violent incidents, colleges must see the value in ensuring that they have well-trained, well-resourced and well-trusted BITs. This approach might mean the BIT will receive a lot of referrals (including those that are low-level and not actual threats) but it also usually means that the campus community can rest assured in the knowledge that reasonable assessments are made and steps are taken to reduce the risk of threats and stalking escalating to violence.