The Victim Empowerment Program (VEP) launched an Instagram campaign as part of January’s National Stalking Awareness month. The goal is to educate students about stalking behaviors and how to protect themselves from this serious crime that affects 6.6 million people in the United States each year. In fact, the Stalking Resource Center reports rates of stalking among college students are higher than the general public, making the issue even more important for students.
“Studies indicate that many more students have experienced stalking than actually realize that the behavior targeted against them constituted stalking,” said Licensed Clinical Social Worker Sharon Aaron, director of VEP.
According to Florida law, “Any person who willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses or cyberstalks another person commits the offense of stalking, a misdemeanor of the first degree.”
Wendy Ordóñez, coordinator of outreach and educational media, said stalking is one of the main reasons students come into the VEP. Ordóñez designs the Instagram posts along with the help of Vicki Carney-Paine, MSW, and health educator at VEP.
“Some students don’t understand the severity of calling someone repeatedly or leaving multiple notes on their love interest’s car,” Ordóñez said. “With everything they see on TV and in movies, the media romanticizes stalking behavior. But it’s not cute and it’s not always harmless. Many times, it’s serious. It’s a crime.”
College and university campuses present unique challenges related to stalking. For example, if a perpetrator resides in the same residence hall or attends the same classes, a victim may continue to live in emotional distress and fear. Because of seemingly “legitimate” reasons for remaining in contact or close proximity, a victim may find it difficult to escape his or her tormentor because the stalker can claim to be engaged in normal activities such as studying in the library or attending a lecture.
Even when steps are taken to resolve these complicated issues, sometimes the stalker finds other resources to accomplish their goals. Ordóñez and Carney-Paine point to technology resources, such as keylogging, Google Altitude and caller ID spoofing, which make it easy for stalkers to track the whereabouts of their victims – a practice known as cyberstalking.
“Geotagging is one of the easiest ways to track someone down,” Carney-Paine said, “but a lot of students don’t know how to change the settings in their phone to turn that off. That’s one of the things VEP shows students how to do, and we educate students on how to participate in social media in a safe way that doesn’t put them at risk.”