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After a childhood trauma, local college student pushes for change to state anti-stalking law 

"I saw an inequity and I turned all of my frustration and disillusionment into action."

According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, 16 percent of women will be stalked at some point in their lives. Pittsburgh college student Sarah Pesi is one of them. At age 12 she was stalked and harassed by an adult she met while she was working as a referee for a junior soccer league.

The stalking and harassment bordered on physical abuse, Pesi says. But she didn't want to file charges — a police officer "said it would be a lot of trouble" for what was only a summary offense. She just wanted the man to stay away.

Had the man been a boyfriend, Pesi could have sought a protection-from-abuse order. But under Pennsylvania law, in cases of stalking or harassment, such orders can be issued only against family members or intimate partners. Pesi, now 18, has spent the past four years trying to change that, with help from the Women and Girls Foundation.

"I had a personal experience [with stalking] and I saw that the laws weren't adequate," says Pesi. "I saw an inequity and I turned all of my frustration and disillusionment into action."

Pesi's case is not unusual among victims of stalking — a crime the U.S. Department of Justice defines as "a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear." In a 2012 report, the agency found that 60 percent of stalkers are not family members or intimate partners. Pennsylvania is one of 13 states that lack anti-stalking provisions to cover such circumstances.

Pesi has been pressuring state legislators to change that. And on Nov. 19, the state House's Judiciary Committee unanimously passed "Sarah's Amendment." The measure allows minors to ask a judge to issue a protective order against any adult engaged in stalking or harassment. Similar to the protective orders issued in domestic-violence cases, the order would instruct an accused stalker to cease contact with a victim, staying away from the victim's home, work or school. Violators could face arrest.

"Having protective orders offers you protection before things escalate to physical violence," Pesi says. "People always wonder, ‘What's a piece of paper going to do?' But you can use it to get help from the police."

Getting such an order tends to be faster than going through the criminal courts, says Thomas Dymek, the House judiciary committee's executive director.

"It's easier because you can go through civil court," Dymek says. "So you don't have to go through police to get it."

Pesi's amendment has been added to Senate Bill 681, which also allows victims of sexual violence to obtain a protective order. The rationale for issuing PFAs is the same, says Dymek: "We know that victims of domestic violence are more hesitant to report to law enforcement, so we give them an alternative. So too are victims of sexual violence."

"Harassment and stalking can seem minor but it can also result in violence and even death," says state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery), SB 681's original sponsor. "What you're relegated to now is going into court and having a full-fledged hearing." But if his bill becomes law, he adds, protective orders "can be afforded to not only someone subjected to physical abuse, but now sexual violence, harassment and stalking."

Still, Pesi worries the legislation doesn't go far enough; as amended, the bill grants protective orders only to minors who allege stalking. She says adults who have been stalked should have the same protection.

Dymek explains that adult victims were not included partly due to fears that adults might use protective orders against each other for minor disagreements. "We're really trying to focus on a vulnerable category of victim," he says.

"We've made incredible strides here," Greenleaf says. "We can deal with [adult stalking] another day. We don't want to add anything that could ... put the bill in jeopardy."

SB 681 awaits a vote in the full House.

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