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The Role of Spectrum Disorders in College Student Stalking Cases

Stalking is a crime under every state law in the country. It is also a violation of federal law, including Title IX and federal criminal statutes, and stalking violates student codes of conduct everywhere in the country. College-age students experience the highest rates of stalking, so it is not surprising that some sources show nearly 40% of college students report being stalked at some point during their time on campus.

What role do autism spectrum disorders play in these statistics? Studies show that individuals with disorders often display characteristics that put them at risk of unintentionally engaging in stalking behavior. On the other side of the coin, students with spectrum disorders may be less likely to recognize stalking behavior or to seek help as the victims of stalking. As complainants or respondents in stalking cases, students with spectrum disorders often struggle with unique challenges.

What Conduct Constitutes Stalking?

While the definition of stalking varies in different statutes and codes of conduct, there are some essential similarities in the definitions. First of all, stalking is not a single act but a course of conduct. This means someone must commit at least two acts that are taken together to form a pattern of conduct.

Next, the course of conduct must be directed at a particular person. Definitions tend to vary at this point. Generally, the course of conduct must be of a type that would cause a reasonable person to fear for their safety or the safety of others or suffer “substantial emotional distress.” (This is the definition of stalking in the federal regulations, 34 C.F.R. §668.4699(a).)

According to the Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center, the actions that are most commonly treated as stalking behaviors among college students include:

  • Sending unwanted voice or text messages
  • Sending unwanted emails or messages via social media
  • Approaching someone or showing up somewhere against the victim’s wishes

It is important to note that the common features that cause these behaviors to constitute stalking is that they violate the wishes of the person receiving the attention. Sending messages can become stalking only when those messages are unwanted. As a crime, stalking differs from many other offenses in that it is the victim’s reaction that determines whether or not certain conduct constitutes a violation.

So what happens when the student sending the messages or following another student does not understand that their conduct is unwanted?

Characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorders Can Lead to Stalking Behavior

When behavior is analyzed by a criminal professional or school administrator not familiar with the characteristics of autism spectrum disorders, behavior can look quite sinister even when it is engaged in with complete innocence. Students with spectrum disorders frequently have difficulty interpreting interpersonal cues correctly, particularly nonverbal cues such as facial expressions and tone of voice. In fact, the difficulties extend to such a degree that the difference has been proven in scientific testing. While Student A may believe they are making it abundantly obvious that attention from Student B is unwanted, it may not be obvious to Student B at all.

In addition, those with autism spectrum disorders frequently develop a focus on a single objective and pursue that objective with a perseverance that is beyond the realm of common behavior. If they are interested in another either as a potential romantic partner or as a friend, they may become completely obsessed with that person. Finally, another common characteristic shared by many with autism spectrum disorders is a tendency to discount or completely ignore the potential consequences of their actions, at least in a social or legal context. When you put these three characteristics together, it is easy to see how a student with spectrum disorders could engage in stalking behavior that frightens another student while having no idea they were violating school rules or committing a crime.

For instance, Student B, who is interested in Student A and hasn’t noticed any social cues or maybe has never even approached Student A, might sit outside Student A’s apartment building with binoculars just to have the chance to see what time Student A leaves for class. This looks highly suspicious to observers, and they report Student B to the campus police or the town police. Student A is scared to pieces, and Student B is in danger of being expelled or sentenced to jail.

Education is the Answer—But How Do We Get There?

In the example above, education is the answer for both students and the professionals adjudicating the case. It is essential for Student B to work with a mental health professional to assess why the stalking behavior is occurring and to develop replacement behaviors. However, it is also important for the person who fears they are being stalked and those responsible for reviewing the facts to determine whether Student B deserves to be seriously penalized to be educated on the characteristics of autism spectrum disorders.

In fact, the Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center notes that “[p]eople with Autism Spectrum Disorders are more likely to engage in inappropriate courting behavior and pursue romantic targets longer, so reports of stalking committed by these students require specialized interventions that include input from disability experts.”

Increasing awareness of this need could go a long way toward avoiding misunderstandings that lead to serious consequences for students. In addition, education about stalking in general could help students identify when they have been subjected to stalking behavior. At least one study suggests that students often do not recognize when they have been the victim of stalking. With their narrow focus and difficulty understanding social cues, students with spectrum disorders may be more likely to fail to understand if they have been subjected to stalking and not understand the benefit they could gain by reporting this behavior to authorities.

Student Advocacy is Paramount

Students experiencing autism spectrum disorders need and deserve special defense if they have been accused of stalking in violation of a college code of conduct, Title IX, or criminal law. When presented with the facts in a persuasive manner, campus tribunals and courts often come to understand the full sense of the situation, and students are not subjected to expulsion, incarceration, or other harsh penalties.

But without proper intervention, students with autism spectrum disorders can be labeled as sexual criminals for conduct they had no idea was wrong.

At Duffy Law, we are dedicated to protecting the rights and futures of students impacted by potential Title IX violations, including allegations of stalking. We advocate for students victimized by behavior as well as those who suffer by being wrongfully accused. We understand the unique impact that autism spectrum disorders can have on a case, and we work tirelessly to ensure that students receive fair treatment.

To discuss a case involving stalking or any other allegations of wrongdoing on campus, we invite you to schedule a consultation at your earliest convenience.

Felice Duffy

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Attorney At Duffy Law

Attorney Felice Duffy served as an Assistant United States Attorney for ten years after beginning her legal career at two prestigious firms (one in CT and one in NY) and then clerking for two federal judges. A life-long Title IX advocate, she brought a legal action under the then-new Title IX statute against UCONN while an undergraduate to compel the creation of its women’s varsity soccer program. She went on to become a first-team Division I All-American, was selected to be on the first U.S. National Women’s Team, and spent 10 years as Head Coach of the Yale women's soccer team. Attorney Duffy has Ph.D. in Education/Sports Psychology and has spoken to, and conducted trainings for, over 50 schools and organizations on a wide range of topics involving athletics, the law, and social justice. You can reach Felice at (203) 946-2000.