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June 8, 2006


“I have an obsession with the unattainable. I have to eliminate what I cannot attain.”

—Robert John Bardo, stalker


With the deaths of John Lennon and actress Rebecca Schaeffer, stalking has come to the forefront as both a crime and a mental health issue. It’s especially prevalent on college campuses.

Among all populations, college students are at greater risk of being stalked. According to the most recent National Sexual Victimization of College Women Survey, 13 percent (more than 1 in 8) of female college students surveyed reported having been stalked sometime during a nine-month period. In comparison, estimates are that 1 in 12 women and 1 in 45 men in the general population will be stalked in their lifetime. Given the prevalence of stalking behavior on campuses, it’s likely that some of your own students have been victims of stalkers.

What is stalking? Contrary to the simple dictionary definition “to pursue or approach stealthily,” stalking covers a wide variety of behaviors, what researchers at Cornell University call “intrusive contact.”


Examples of intrusive contact behaviors

• Making repeated bothersome, threatening and/or obscene phone calls.

• Sending unwanted letters or packages.

• Repeatedly communicating with the victim electronically.

• Following the victim by car or foot.

• Repeatedly leaving gifts at the victim’s place of work or home.

• Watching the victim from a distance.

• Surveying the victim’s workplace or home.

• Repeatedly approaching the victim.

• Intercepting the victim’s mail deliveries.

According to recent surveys of college students, 30 percent reported having experienced intrusive contact after terminating a relationship. The surveys indicated that both males and females engage in intrusive contact behaviors and both males and females are victims.


Reactions of victims

Students who are targets of intrusive behaviors may have physical and emotional reactions that will show up in your classroom:

• Hypervigilance; paranoia.

• Exaggerated startle response.

• Distractibility; inability to concentrate.

• Feelings of helplessness and powerlessness.

• Fear regarding personal safety.

• Anxiety.

• Frequent class absences.

• Stress symptoms, such as headaches and loss of appetite.


How you can help

If a student discloses that he/she has been the target of intrusive contact, what can you do to help?

• Take the concerns of the student seriously. Allow the student to talk about what is happening but do not question the validity of the intrusive contact.

• Stress the importance of documentation. The student should maintain a journal to record contact made or attempts at making contact by the initiator. Corresponding dates and any threats need to be documented. E-mail and phone messages should be saved as well as letters and gifts.

• Encourage the student to speak with a staff member in the University’s Counseling Center (648-7930). The counselor will be able to assist the student emotionally and discuss police and judicial options with the student.

• Encourage the student to contact the police if the student has been threatened or feels unsafe or if the intrusive contact has been taking place for some time. The campus police might be able to talk with the initiator, if a Pitt student, and inform him/her of the necessity to stop all contact with the victim (University of Pittsburgh police department: 811; Pittsburgh city police: 911).

• Urge the student to notify family, friends and co-workers about what is taking place. Silence works to the advantage of the person initiating the intrusive contact.

Mary Koch Ruiz has been coordinator for Sexual Assault Services at Pitt since 1994. Sexual Assault Services is located in the University Counseling Center, 334 Pitt Union.

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