By Samantha Reed
To most of the student body, it was just another mundane Monday afternoon. To one particular Rider University student, it was anything but that.
Instead of going to class, she was crying on the floor of her room, fearing for her life. Things had quickly escalated since she broke up with her boyfriend earlier that month, but it was threats to kill her and her family that inspired this 22-year-old to take her situation to Lawrence Police.
This disturbing incident occurred before changes to the Title IX law and Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) mandated that colleges in the United States provide ongoing programs to prevent assaults and abuse. In January 2014, Rider hired Susan Stahley as a prevention education coordinator. Domestic abuse was added to her portfolio, along with drug and alcohol abuse and sexual assault.
The case occurred in January of 2012, one of five domestic violence cases reported from Rider that year. There were two cases reported in 2010, two in 2011, two in 2013 and one in 2014, according to data from Lawrence Police. There is no documented information explaining the spike in 2012.
When informed of these numbers, the victim wished she had known them earlier.
“My case was the only one I ever heard about,” she said. “Maybe Rider’s doing a good job keeping it underwraps, or, maybe it’s a bad thing they were not letting anyone know they’re not alone.”
Lawrence Police Lt. Joseph Amodio noted that calls regarding this type of incident are a common occurrence for his department.
“We get domestic violence calls to the township every day, from all walks of life,” Amodio said. “The numbers at Rider are comparable, because domestic violence doesn’t seem to discriminate. Educated people, wealthy people, it could happen to anyone.”
Stahley feels the numbers reported to the police should probably be even higher.
“From all of the various educational Listservs I am on and education I keep up with, it [domestic violence] is a national problem,” Stahley said. “I know of only a few students here on campus that have experienced it, but then again, statistics show there are more cases out there than are reported. As you know, reports of domestic or sexual violence do not reflect the true picture of what is going on. They only reflect those that are willing to come forward with a report.”
Cases similar to that of the 2012 victim, as well as cases nationwide, are what caused Rider to take action against domestic violence involving students.
As the prevention educator, Stahley participates in many campaigns at Rider promoting bystander awareness and intervention strategies. She provides numerous presentations in classrooms and residence halls, often in conjunction with clubs, organizations on campus and athletics. In addition to these events, Stahley is bringing awareness into the students’ view. She has weekly tables at Daly’s, with various themes, that students know to look for. For sexual assault awareness month last April, Stahley brought the Clothesline Project onto campus, where students hang up t-shirts decorated with anti-domestic violence slogans.
Last spring, she brought The Vagina Monologues back to campus and reprised it again this year, adding V-Men to the monologues (see review, p. 6). Both times were a joint effort with Rider’s United Women organization. The two events raised over $1,000 that was donated to Womanspace, a nonprofit agency providing an array of services to women in crisis in the Mercer County area.
Since her arrival at Rider, Stahley is beginning to feel more students are willing to come forward with their experiences.
Stahley said, “I always like to be sure the message is that increased numbers in reporting does not mean increased number of incidents. It means more willingness on the part of a survivor to speak up about what happened to them, that they trust Rider’s system will believe them and handle each case appropriately.
“I also feel that bystanders are more willing to report when they see or hear something going on, more willing to reach out to public safety and/or to res life/student affairs staff. I can’t speak to the numbers reported, but overall I see that there has been an increase in reports of situations.”
Bystanders are what saved the 2012 victim, who prefers to remain anonymous. She credits living with her best friends as the push that caused her to come forward.
“This all happened my junior year, when I was living in the house,” the victim said. “So my best friends got to see me be upset, ask why and practically drag me to the police station.”
The student had broken up with her boyfriend and then found out she was pregnant. She told her ex-boyfriend about the pregnancy, and he told her that he wanted nothing to do with her. She then decided to have an abortion. Her ex-boyfriend, who was never a student at Rider, proceeded to send her threatening texts, calls, voicemails and emails saying if she could kill his child, he could kill her and her family.
“I don’t think girls know. I don’t think boys know,” the victim said. “I don’t think students know that what they’re experiencing might be considered domestic violence.”
Both Rider and the Lawrence Police have to follow the New Jersey attorney general’s definition of domestic violence. According to the New Jersey State Division of Criminal Justice, domestic violence includes one or more of the following offenses upon a person: homicide, assault, terroristic threats, kidnapping, criminal restraint, false imprisonment, sexual assault, criminal sexual contact, lewdness, criminal mischief, burglary, criminal trespass, harassment and stalking.
This means students who are experiencing emotional or mental distress from a roommate, a classmate or a former friend can all file a domestic violence claim. As in the 2012 victim’s case, it doesn’t have to include physical or sexual abuse. Hurtful, harmful or threatening words, whether in person or over technology, can be considered domestic violence.
Of the 12 cases reported at the university in the five years from 2010 to 2014, according to Lawrence Police, 11 involved Rider students. Eleven of the cases had female victims and two of the cases had male victims, with one case having both a male and a female victim. Two of the cases involved the same two victims, showing that domestic violence can reoccur in a student’s life. Half of the cases occurred during the day, while the other half occurred during the late evening or early morning. The 12th case involved divorced parents visiting campus on the same day.
In regard to identifying and reporting a case of domestic violence, whether it be for oneself or for a friend, there are ways to reach out for help.
“Do not be afraid to reach out using the three D’s: direct, delegate, distract,” Stahley said. Direct by directly placing yourself into a situation to prevent it from escalating further, delegate by getting someone to intervene for you who can better handle the situation and distract by diffusing a situation by distracting those involved.
Amodio reminds students, though, that there are resources all around them. The counseling center, the health center, resident advisers and the police all have specialized trained staff to deal with domestic violence situations. In addition, Mercer County has set up a domestic violence response team to aid any victims who come forward to the Lawrence Police to guide them with advice and to navigate their situation in ways the average officer could not.
Students should also be aware that in The Source, the university’s code of conduct, there is an Anti-Harassment and Non-Discrimination Policy stating all student rights, as well as local sources they can reach out to in times of need, regardless of the time of day or day of the week.
Dean of Students Anthony Campbell wants students to speak up, whether they themselves or their friend are falling victim to domestic violence.
“Don’t sit quietly and not talk to folks,” he stated. “Nobody deserves to experience domestic violence. Nobody.”
The 2012 victim says she’s just finally coming to terms with her situation now. She’s grateful for the opportunity to share her story to benefit others.
“Whether you’re a girl or a boy, telling someone and asking for help is OK,” she would remind anyone who could potentially be a fellow victim. “There are safe spaces and safe people who you can share what’s going on in a judgment-free way, and you don’t have to deal with it by yourself. Please, it’s not healthy to keep it in.”