On-Campus Stalking Is The Issue You’re Not Hearing About

Jan 15, 2015 at 7:32 AM ET

Rachel Pendray, a 20-year-old nursing major at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, was fatally shot in 2006 by Jake Taylor, a former student who claimed to love her. The blond cheerleader had become an obsession for Taylor since the two briefly dated the summer after her freshman year, so when Pendray broke things off, the 24-year-old did not take it lightly. He attempted suicide twice over the course of the following year, continued bringing her gifts, and called and texted her constantly. Some of Pendray’s friends were unnerved by Taylor’s behavior, but Pendray herself never filed any complaints; she even let him enter her bedroom the evening he killed her. Taylor said he wanted to talk, and the two spoke for an hour before Pendray’s roommates heard gunshots—three to Pendray’s torso and one for Taylor himself.

Pendray’s shocking death ignited a national conversation about stalking on college campuses, but just shy of a decade later, students around the country are still being victimized. And though it’s considered a crime in all 50 states, it wasn’t until this October that the federal government made it mandatory for colleges and universities to track incidents of stalking on campus, as well as the subsequent disciplinary actions taken in each case.

However, the crime’s persistence isn’t entirely the fault of the government or school administrators. As a recent study by the Crime Victims’ Institute at Pendray’s alma mater found that while college students are at greater risk of being stalked than the general population, they are less likely to report the crime to the police.

In fact, nearly 75 percent of college stalking victims forgo contacting law enforcement. A previous study found that students balked, citing reasons such as “I believed the situation was too minor” (64.9 percent), “I was afraid the person doing these things to me would seek revenge” (40.5 percent), or “It was a private/personal matter” (29.7 percent).

But the act of not reporting creates a vicious cycle. If unchecked, stalking, which is often overshadowed by sexual assault on campuses, can actually precipitate violent attacks—sexual or otherwise—as well as create debilitating, relentless fear.

And with the advent of social media and handheld technology, it’s become even easier for stalkers to harass their victims on a 24-hour basis. This is particularly true for college students. According to the study by the Crime Victims’ Institute, on top of traditional stalking, students also experience cyber-stalking at higher rates than the rest of the population.

“Given the pervasiveness of the issue, campus administrators, school personnel and public safety officials must consider the seriousness of the crime and tailor their efforts to proactively address stalking among college campuses and the general public through effective strategies of prevention and intervention,” says Leana Bouffard, director of the Crime Victims’ Institute and co-author of the study.

In an encouraging sign, some schools around the country have begun taking baby steps toward progress. This year, several public universities opted to include stalking statistics in their annual safety handbooks for students. According to Washington State University, 16 incidents were reported on campus during the 2013 school year, which sounds rather moderate at a school with an enrollment of nearly 30,000. However, if we take the statistic from the Crime Victims’ Institute into account that indicates 75 percent of victims fail to report the crime, then it’s possible that up to 64 students were stalked that year.

“The findings from the current analysis suggest that more is needed to build the capacity of universities and public safety officials to systematically address the barriers that inhibit victims from reporting,” says Patrick Brady, the study’s other co-author. “Additionally, universities need to ensure that they have the resources necessary to appropriately respond to reports of stalking and other forms of interpersonal violence.”

As January is Stalking Awareness Month, there’s no better time than the present.