It's not unusual, of course, for college students to meet, to be attracted to one another, to text and message each other, and to eventually enter into a relationship of some sort, whether it's a friendship or something more. At times, however, signals get crossed, and what might be politeness on the part of one student is mistaken for genuine interest by the other. And while, more often than not, the worst that happens is a few wacky exchanges of the type we often see in sitcoms, every once in a while, one of the parties gets a bit too obsessive about the potential for a relationship. They make contact too frequently, their messages are too frantic or earnest, or they accidentally-but-really-on-purpose repeatedly stop by the other person's dorm, classroom, workplace, gym, running route . . . . you get the idea. They stalk.
Stalking as a Crime Under Pennsylvania Law
Under Pennsylvania law, the crime of stalking occurs when someone repeatedly does something to another person or repeatedly communicates with the other person under circumstances that show an intent to make the other person fear for their safety or to cause the other person “substantial emotional distress.”
A first offense for Stalking is a first-degree misdemeanor, the most serious type of misdemeanor. If the defendant has a previous conviction for stalking or for one of several crimes of violence involving the same victim, family, or household member, the stalking offense is punished as a third-degree felony.
If convicted of Stalking as a first-degree misdemeanor, the penalty can be a fine of between $1500 and $10,000, a prison term of up to five years, or both. A third-degree felony conviction increases the penalty to a fine of between $2500 and $15,000, a prison term of up to seven years, or both.
Stalking in the College and University Context
In the context of colleges and universities, stalking has a slightly different definition. The stalking definition adopted by most schools is based on the one included in the federal Title IX legislation, which is a set of laws and regulations designed to eliminate discrimination based on sex in schools that accept federal funding (which almost every college and university does). Schools typically adopt the Title IX definition of “stalking” to mean “engaging in a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person” to “fear for his or her safety or the safety of others” or “suffer substantial emotional distress.”
Because stalking is included in the types of conduct prohibited under Title IX, schools have implemented a set of policies and procedures designed to meet the requirements of the Title IX regulations. But that doesn't mean that schools will necessarily abandon a disciplinary proceeding if they conclude that a student's actions did not meet the Title IX stalking definition; most schools will give themselves the option to discipline students based on general code of conduct violations as well.
You May Face a Double Problem if Accused of Criminal Stalking
All of this means that if you are charged with the crime of Stalking in Pennsylvania, and the alleged victim is a fellow college student or a member of your school's faculty or staff, you are likely to face both criminal charges in court and a disciplinary proceeding at your school. There are not many attorneys who have experience defending students in these kinds of dual situations; Joseph D. Lento is one who does. He knows the high stakes involved when a student is accused of committing a crime that is related to their enrollment in a college or university in Pennsylvania (as well as in other states).
Joseph D. Lento is aware that resolving the criminal matter doesn't mean the disciplinary proceeding will go away, even if the criminal result is that the charges or dropped or that the student is acquitted. His experience with these kinds of situations helps make sure that your rights, both as a citizen and as a student, will be respected and that you will be in the best position possible to defend yourself on both fronts.
Some Examples of Student Discipline Policies Related to Stalking
Temple's Student Conduct Code defines stalking in two ways; first, using the Title IX definition of “Engaging in a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to fear for their safety or the safety of others; or suffer severe emotional distress.” Second, Temple also adopts the definition from the Pennsylvania anti-stalking statute.
Temple's Student Conduct Code also sets forth the geographic areas where the code applies. These include the campus and areas within 500 yards of the campus; on university-owned or controlled vehicles such as shuttle buses; at school-sponsored activities; and then very broadly “to off-campus incidents or conduct that adversely affect the university community and/or the pursuit of its objectives.”
Because stalking falls under Temple's policy on Preventing and Addressing Sexual Misconduct, there is a separate set of areas where these rules apply; these are basically the same as those described in the Student Conduct Code, but in addition – and again very broadly – “to off-campus/online incidents or conduct when the Title IX Coordinator determines that the university has substantial control over both the Respondent and the context of the reported misconduct.”
Note the reference here to “online incidents.” This means that in some situations, Temple can pursue disciplinary charges against an off-campus student who makes contact with another off-campus student online, where that contact is reported to the school as stalking-type behavior.
As with most schools, Temple has defined procedures for investigating Conduct Code and Sexual Misconduct allegations. But even before those procedures conclude, Temple reserves the right to impose some fairly severe interim measures against a student accused of misconduct. These include interim suspension, exclusion from university housing, issuance of a no-contact order, and exclusion from class participation.
Once a complaint is filed, a Student Conduct Code Administrator reviews it and, where possible, “may” investigate to see if the matter can be resolved between the parties. Otherwise, where the accused student disputes the charges, there will be a hearing process that will take place that includes a meeting with the accused student to review what the process will be (the complaining student will also be entitled to one, separate from the meeting with the accused student). Notably, in cases where the Student Conduct Administrator “concludes, based on the Process Review Meeting, that there is no basis for charges against the Student,” the charges may be dropped.
If the charges aren't dropped, the Student Conduct Administrator next decides on what the appropriate hearing process will be. The accused student has “the right to be assisted by any Personal Advisor they choose.” This means that if you are accused of any Student Conduct Code violation, including stalking, you should contact an attorney with experience advising students in these kinds of proceedings as your Personal Advisor.
Joseph D. Lento has acted as the attorney and personal advisor for students involved in disciplinary proceedings all over Pennsylvania and in states around the country. Having Joseph D. Lento in your corner in student disciplinary proceedings can make an enormous difference in how they turn out because he understands the issues, your rights, and how to best construct and apply an effective defense to the charges brought against you.
The sanctions available under Temple's Student Conduct Code range from a Letter of Reprimand, to Disciplinary Probation, to Loss of Privileges (which can vary depending on the situation), to a fine of up to $1500, suspension, or expulsion from student housing, to suspension or expulsion from Temple University. In addition, there are other penalties that can be imposed under certain circumstances.
“The term ‘stalking' means engaging in a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to:
“(A) fear for their safety or the safety of others; or
“(B) suffer substantial emotional distress.”
Like Temple, Penn State notes that “Stalking includes stalking accomplished through electronic means.”
Where a student is accused of stalking, Penn State will follow a process similar to Temple's, which incorporates an early Voluntary Informal Resolution process, which is basically a mediation procedure that can result in an agreed resolution – including dismissal – of the complaint.
After that, or if there is no Voluntary Informal Resolution meeting, the university will investigate the complaint, prepare preliminary and final investigative reports, assemble a hearing panel, conduct a pre-hearing meeting, conduct a hearing, issue a finding, and, where appropriate, impose sanctions. “Sanctions may include, without limitation, formal warning, conduct probation, suspension, and expulsion. In addition, other administrative sanctions may include exclusion, housing reassignment, loss of housing, and/or loss of privileges.”
Students are permitted to select “an individual of their choice to serve as their Advisor” during the Title IX disciplinary process, who has a right to be present for the hearing and related meetings. While generally, the role of the student's Advisor is limited to advising the student during the early stages of the investigation, at the hearing, the Advisor is permitted to take a more active role and may make presentations and directly represent the student.
Drexel University's definition of “Stalking” in its Sexual Harassment and Sexual Misconduct Policy is in line with Title IX's, and goes on to describe in detail what Drexel considers to be a “course of conduct” that can “cause a reasonable person to: (1) fear for their safety or the safety of others, or (2) suffer substantial emotional distress.”
In particular, Drexel notes that the phrase “course of conduct” means “two or more acts, including, but not limited to, acts in 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.”
Drexel, as with Temple and Penn State and other Pennsylvania colleges and universities investigates stalking charges as part of its Title IX policy investigation process. This process follows in many respects what other schools do; there is a preliminary investigation, a voluntary alternative dispute resolution procedure available if the parties agree; there is a formal investigation process if the allegations are deemed to have merit and are not disposed of after an initial evaluation; if the formal investigation shows that charges are warranted, and the accused student does not admit to them, there is a hearing that takes place. If the charges are substantiated at the hearing, sanctions can be imposed.
Here too, the accused students have a right to have an advisor of their choosing participate in the investigation and hearing process.
Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Can Help You
If you are a student who has been charged with the crime of Stalking in Pennsylvania, you need the help of a criminal defense attorney with experience in this area. As a student, especially if your accuser is a fellow student, you also need the help of an attorney who has advised students involved in school disciplinary proceedings. Joseph D. Lento has both kinds of experience, and in particular, he has represented students who find themselves in your shoes – charged with a crime and also facing school discipline proceedings as a result of those charges.
It's a doubly serious situation, and you may be frightened, confused, or ashamed to find yourself involved in it. But you're not the first one to face these kinds of difficulties, and you have rights that deserve to be respected. Joseph D. Lento has represented dozens of students just like you. He understands how you're feeling, and he knows what you're up against. More importantly, he is here to help you, not judge you, as he has helped many students who have found themselves in similar situations over the years.
Call Joseph D. Lento today at 888.535.3686 or reach out to The Lento Law Firm online. You'll be glad you did.