More Utah college students report being stalked. Here’s why experts are both worried and hopeful.

Cases jumped at nearly every school in the state, with the biggest increase at the University of Utah.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak stands in silence as he acknowledges a banner honoring student and track athlete Lauren McCluskey on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, on the two-year anniversary of her murder. Reports of stalking went up at the University of Utah and other colleges in the state in the year after McCluskey's 2018 case.

The number of reported stalking cases has spiked at Utah’s colleges, worrying advocates who say the increase in crime is real — but giving them hope, too, that more victims are coming forward to report.

Recently released data shows a total of 145 cases of stalking across the 10 public and private universities in the state for 2019. That’s up from 84 in 2018, according to crime statistics that colleges nationwide are required by the federal Clery Act to compile and release annually.

Never before had stalking reports crossed 100 for a single year among Utah’s institutions of higher education.

“The trend is huge,” said Alexandra Merritt, a victim advocate for the Utah Crime Victims Legal Clinic, who’s worked with an increasing number of young women seeking injunctions. In just the first week of 2021, she said, she had three new cases. Before 2019, she had three over a whole year.

The University of Utah saw the largest surge, from 30 cases in 2018 to 62 in 2019. That marks a record high in total reported cases of stalking for any Utah school in recent history. Brigham Young University followed, with 34 cases for 2019. But nearly every school saw an increase.

People of college age have the highest rates of being targeted by a stalker, and Merritt believes the crime is becoming more prevalent. Using today’s technology — phones and GPS and social media — “stalkers are getting more clever,” she added.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The good news, said Merritt and Julie Valentine, a sexual assault nurse examiner with Wasatch Forensic Nurses, is that a jump in the number of reported cases also typically means that more victims are coming forward.

That could be influenced by the #MeToo movement in 2017, Valentine said, which encouraged people to recognize and talk publicly about experiencing sexual assault and harassment. And in Utah, the high-profile stalking and murder of U. student-athlete Lauren McCluskey in 2018 by a man she had dated has raised awareness of the crime, they said.

“We know the majority of victims of sexual assault or stalking don’t report,” Valentine said, adding, “we can’t fully reduce or respond to the crimes until we get the reports and know the reality of what’s happening.”

The definition of stalking

Stalking is harder to define than dating or intimate partner violence, Merritt said. But she believes it’s similar to other relationship crimes because of the dynamic of one person having power over another — such as showing up at a workplace uninvited, taking pictures without consent or sending continued messages despite requests to stop.

Many victims may see the behavior as an annoyance at first, she said, but it can quickly escalate, including to an assault. Some victims, she said, have gone on just one date with a person before that individual began stalking them. Sometimes a perpetrator is a former boyfriend or girlfriend.

Right now, Utah’s statute defining what qualifies as stalking is one of the best in the country, she said. A victim has to have two or more incidents, directed at them by a perpetrator, that induced fear or caused emotional distress, in order to qualify for an injunction or possibly have charges filed against their assailant.

Those actions are the best two remedies an individual has to get a stalker to stop, Merritt said. (Neither, though, was ever suggested by U. campus police to McCluskey, one of the biggest oversights that investigators later cited in the mishandling of her case.)

But a bill proposed in the state legislative session now underway — HB21 — would require three or more incidents and evidence of “continuity of purpose.”

“How is a victim supposed to prove another person’s purpose?” Merritt asked. “Why would we want to make our standard harder when we have a standard that can protect more people right now?”

The bill sponsor, Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, did not return calls for comment.

A ‘McCluskey effect’?

Advocates point to the case of McCluskey, a 21-year-old track athlete, who was being extorted, harassed and stalked by a man she had briefly dated. She tried to report Melvin Rowland to police in October 2018 after ending their relationship, but independent investigators found that campus officers didn’t take McCluskey’s concerns seriously. Rowland shot her outside her campus dorm before dying by suicide.

“That case is definitely going to resonate with students,” Merritt said, and possibly “bring awareness of what stalking actually is.”

After McCluskey’s death, “universities across the state and beyond, we all really looked at what we’re doing to educate on stalking and dating violence and sexual assault,” said Amanda DeRito, a spokesperson for Utah State University. “We did do a lot more education so people understood what the warning signs are.”

The University of Utah also focused on how to improve campus safety and the response of police. And McCluskey’s parents, Jill and Matt McCluskey, pushed for professors across the state and country to include information on how to report relationship crimes in their course syllabi.

“We hope that telling Lauren’s story and promoting Lauren’s Promise will encourage women to come forward when they are the victims of crimes,” said Jill McCluskey in an email.

A move to make campus crime data more useful

Devon Cantwell, a member of the student-led Unsafe U group that has critiqued the U.’s safety responses, said with the rise in reports of stalking she’d like to see campus interventions specifically targeted to the crime.

That could include advertising about how students can file for an injunction or explaining different types of stalking or what offices students can go to report. “I think they’re assuming students know what all of these offices do, and they don’t,” Cantwell added.

Valentine also suggests teaching students about internet privacy and being careful about who they share their location with, as well as what they post on social media.

But they also hope to make data on campus crimes more useful to students.

In their annual Clery reports, colleges must include assaults that happen on campus, or on public property — like a sidewalk — immediately adjacent to campus, or in an off-campus building owned by the school. But they don’t have to specify where a crime occurred, a limitation acknowledged by Annalisa Purser, director of administration for university safety at the U.

Within the U.’s fondling numbers for 2018, for instance, many cases were related to one University Hospital patient grabbing individuals and were not cause for campuswide concern, she said.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Cantwell is now working with Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, on a bill that would require universities to publish the crime data in a live and more easy-to-read format online, including mapped locations. The proposal has not yet been made public.

There are about 190,000 college students in the state; but experts stress the reported numbers of sexual assaults are likely significantly lower than reality due to underreporting. And research has shown that most attacks against college students occur off campus, but those assaults — in apartments, at social gatherings — are excluded from Clery data.

Iwamoto wants the numbers that officials do have “to be really available to students,” she said, to give them insight in what’s happening on their campuses. For example, someone may choose not to attend a party at a specific fraternity or sorority house where an assault occurred. And maybe that understanding, too, could lead to more victims coming forward to report.