FIU Victim Advocate Weighs in on Stalking

Man looks through window. Jesse Fraga / PantherNOW.

Martina Brady / Staff Writer

Ever since FIU closed due to the pandemic in March 2020, there have been no reported stalking cases on campus according to FIUPD. 

A stark difference to previous years, when stalking cases at FIU spiked.

According to FIUPD’s most recent report, from 2017 to 2019, 47 cases of stalking occurred at Modesto Maidique Campus and 14 cases occurred in MMC housing. These statistics show an increase from 2014 to 2016, which reported 37 cases of stalking at MMC and seven cases in MMC housing. 

Stalking cases at BBC are significantly lower, reporting two cases on campus and two cases in BBC housing between 2017 and 2019 according to FIUPD. BBC reported only one case of stalking on campus between 2014 and 2016.

In 2020, both MMC and BBC campuses had one case of stalking in February.

FIU advocate Elisabeth Simpson, assistant director of the Victim Empowerment Program, offered her insights on the nature of stalking at the university.

“The perpetrator’s intent is to instill tremendous fear in the victim,” said Simpson, who holds a mental health counselor license from Nova Southeastern University.

FIUPD defines stalking as two or more “acts which the stalker directly, indirectly or through third parties, by any action, method, device or means follows, monitors, observes, surveils, threatens or communicates to or about, a person or interferes with a person’s property.”

These behaviors can include following, leaving gifts or objects, spreading rumors or threatening the victim.

A stalking case occurred recently at FIU when campus police arrested graduate student Huayan Gao. The armed student was later found to have sent threatening emails to a professor and members of her family. 

Simpson said she has seen a range of stalking behaviors at FIU in her five years working with FIU’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

A report from Sam Houston State University found that college students are twice as likely to experience stalking, yet less likely to seek help. College students are also more likely to experience cyberstalking.

Simpson explained a common misconception about stalking.

“One of the most important things I think people tend to not understand about stalking, is that first of all, it’s a range of behaviours,” said Simpson. “These are not behaviors to be taken lightly, they can be quite dangerous.”

Like many forms of domestic violence, Simpson added, stalking is about power and control.

According to Simpson, a stalker can be triggered by a romantic or social rejection, such as the end of a relationship or an unrequited interest. 

“I’ve seen the motivation, where the perpetrator just can’t believe that the relationship is over and is… struggling with it,” she said. “I’ve seen it where the perpetrator was found and determined that they’re going to get that person back no matter what, even if it puts them in jail.”

Working with victims at FIU, the victim advocate counselor often sees stalking behaviors begin in the classroom.

“I’ve worked on cases in the classroom setting, where someone isn’t completely understanding… some of the social norms or boundaries around relationships,” she said. “Those cases really create tremendous distress in the victim because they’re not understanding the behavior, they’re not understanding why the [stalker] won’t stop when they say no.”

When dealing with a mild stalking case, confrontation can be an effective way to deal with a stalker. Simpson explained ways to differentiate a mild from a severe case.

“One [strategy] would be to just… tell this person to stop contacting you,” said Simpson. “Generally, in milder cases that seems to be sufficient.”

However, if the verbal confrontation doesn’t work, Simpson says the behavior can escalate.

“When someone continues to make contact after you’ve asked them to stop… [they might] start showing up in places that don’t make sense as to why the person would show up there,” said Simpson. “They didn’t have a class on that part of campus.”

In these types of cases, Simpson stresses the need to take precautions for the victim’s safety.

“We really want to make sure that we’re safety planning with a student, because of either threats that have been made, or just the pervasiveness of the behaviour,” she said. “Even after being told to stop, and that if they don’t stop, that law enforcement will be involved.”

In recent years, Simpson said, social media has increasingly become a tool for stalkers to stay in contact with their victims.

“They try to do it through making fake accounts or from a third party,” said Simpson. “People will say, I got all these missed calls or I didn’t recognize the number or, you know, I got a text message but I don’t want the number that I got the text message from.”

During the pandemic, a 2020 study found that the reliance on digital forms of communication increased instances of online stalking. Stalkers used social media and apps like Zoom to monitor and collect information about their targets.

The advocate counselor emphasized the adverse effects of stalking on victims, both physically and mentally. 

“[A victim might think] something about the situation just doesn’t feel right to me, doesn’t feel comfortable, and I don’t like it, I want this person to stop,” she added.

Simpson described the range of emotions victims experience while dealing with stalking and harassment.

“There’s certainly some embarrassment, and maybe a bit of shame that comes up from this, ‘What am I doing? Have I done something wrong to cause this person had to not to leave me alone?’” she explained.

Even mild stalking, Simpson said, can manifest physical symptoms such as insomnia, lack of appetite, and difficulty concentrating. 

She continued, “The longer it continues, and the less sense of control a victim has,… it really creates post traumatic stress disorder symptoms such as hyper vigilance, flashbacks, [and] depression.”

Stalking also comes with the threat of physical violence. A 2017 study from the University of Gloucestershire found that stalking was an element in 94 percent of murders. During the pandemic, another study described stalking victims under stay-at-home orders as sitting ducks, as stalkers knew where to locate them at all times.

The consequences of stalking extend beyond health. A stalker may use social pressure to take revenge on their victim, particularly with LGBTQ+ victims.

“For the LGBTQ community, spreading rumors, outing is a huge threat… that can impact their finances, housing, [and] the workplace,” said Simpson. “[Stalking] has the potential to be incredibly insidious interfering in so many realms of an individual’s life.”

More than one in three bisexual women have experienced stalking, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports (great as the year of epit). This is double the rate of stalking as heterosexual women.

Simpson recommended resources stalking victims can use for support including the Stalking Prevention Awareness and Resource Center, Tech Safety App, and the Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women.

As FIU begins to reopen, stalking cases on campus may continue to increase. For these victims, The VEP offers resources and support.

“We will work with the student to advocate, help,… develop a safety plan and really talk with a student about different options that they have,” said Simpson.

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