The University of Utah has set aside nearly $1 million to make its campus safer — upgrades that were spurred by the murder of student-athlete Lauren McCluskey.
The changes, announced this week, were recommended by a task force convened in December to broadly examine security and look for gaps revealed by the case. Most of the fixes will be in place before students return for classes Monday.
“We want to make this campus as safe as we possibly can,” said Michele Ballantyne, co-chairwoman of the group and associate general counsel at the U. “It’s a big commitment.”
Their suggestions include improving building alarms, having police patrol outside of night classes and hiring a chief security officer to be the point person for all of campus safety (including overseeing the chief of police).
U. President Ruth Watkins called for the task force after an independent investigation found serious missteps in how the school’s police department handled repeated concerns reported by McCluskey. The 21-year-old track star had told officers that she was being harassed and extorted by Melvin S. Rowland, a man she briefly dated. He later shot and killed her Oct. 22 before turning the gun on himself.
Watkins asked the team to go beyond police and look at the whole campus. “We have committed to Lauren’s family that we will learn from this in the hope of preventing another tragedy like this,” she said at the time.
McCluskey’s parents, though, have filed a lawsuit against the school — saying that staff could have done more to protect their daughter. And the upgrades, they said, won’t actually address what went wrong.
“The university’s principal problem was the lack of response from the campus police to a female student’s multiple requests for help,” Jill McCluskey said. “None of these investments in safety will change the culture. For real change to occur, the University of Utah needs to hold people accountable. They must take responsibility for what happened.”
The task force had been called on only one other time since it was formed in 2016. Then, it looked at safety after a woman had reported being raped at gunpoint in a truck by a masked man on Halloween. University officials didn’t send out campus alerts until more than two hours after that report. And after a month of investigating, detectives dismissed the case — sending an email to students and faculty that many felt insinuated the woman was lying.
In reviewing the case, federal officials found “potentially serious shortcomings” in how students were informed and kept updated about the alleged rape. The task force recommended improving communications between the police and those on campus. It then disbanded.
The latest iteration — which had 27 members — met seven times between December and July, Ballantyne said, with a focus on McCluskey, domestic violence and security, particularly at night.
These are the six biggest changes they came up with:
1. Consolidating night classes
Starting this semester, the university will centralize night classes to a few areas on campus — which will each have assigned security officers patrolling them.
The idea is to limit how far students have to walk to get to a car or bus, Ballantyne said, as well as to keep students from being alone in a building. The areas will be around the Marriott Library, the business school, the law school and Gardner Commons next to the student union.
Most of the classes will also get out at the same time so there will be more people around.
AnnaMarie Barnes, student body president at the U. and a senior studying political science and international studies, said “this is going to be key.” She has in the past left class late or gone back to her office to pick up a paper and not seen other students around. She’s worried about being attacked, but now knowing there will be officers and surveillance, she said, is a comfort. “It makes me feel safer personally."
2. A new transportation service — and more parking spaces
It’s essentially the Uber of the University of Utah.
On Monday, the school will launch what it calls SafeRide, a service for both students and staff to request rides to anywhere on campus at night — such as the dorms or a parking lot. Users can download the app for free. It runs Monday through Friday from 6 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., and the drivers will be students hired by the university to drive marked SafeRide cars.
Barnes called the transportation idea “the No. 1 most important” in the safety plan, saying it’s meant to work in conjunction with the consolidated night classes. She hopes it will help students who might feel nervous walking around campus at night.
Additionally, the U. will open more parking spaces at the library and union for students to use after 3 p.m., so they can be closer to their cars as it gets dark.
3. Upgrades to building security
A big chunk of the $925,000 budget to improve campus safety will go to adding new security features to older buildings.
The U. has designated $325,000 for beacons with flashing red alarms, a text screen and a loudspeaker for emergencies. Once installed, the beacons can act like a PA system and tell those in a building if there’s a problem — and what, specifically, it is, such as an intruder or a fire.
Additionally, other spaces will get new cameras and lighting, and the older dorms will get better locks and more secure entrances so nonresidents cannot get in. That problem was a specific issue with McCluskey’s case because Rowland was able to sneak in and out of her building without a key.
“We can create a much more secure environment with just a bit of technology,” said Dustin Banks, who led the task force’s subcommittee for personnel and communication.
4. Changes to overnight guest policy
Students will now be required to register any guests staying overnight at the dorms.
A guest is allowed to stay for three consecutive nights and 10 nights total over a year, Ballantyne said, after they’ve been checked in. The host student must also escort that individual at all times.
“Campus is kind of like a small city,” Barnes added. “It’s hard to know who’s coming and going. This will help.”
In September, McCluskey’s friends had reported to housing staff that they were concerned she was in an unhealthy relationship with a man who talked about bringing a gun to campus. One of them expressed fear that McCluskey might get seriously hurt, according to a report. Both said Rowland had been “practically living with her” at the dorms.
The housing coordinator responded by saying she would talk to McCluskey about the guest policy. University staff has continued to focus on what policies were broken — though housing staff never filed a report about the possible abuse or the gun and did little to assess her safety, investigators said.
5. More staff and student trainings
Before they can register for classes, students have to complete training on preventing sexual assault and the drug and alcohol policies.
Now, when they go through those modules, there will be more options for videos on mental health, diversity awareness, prescription drug abuse, bystander intervention and active shooter responses, Banks said. Those additional trainings aren’t mandatory yet, but they might be in the future.
Faculty will also have access to those and will be expected to complete them.
“My hope is that they cover a lot of gaps in university policies,” Barnes suggested. “I think that it will start requiring people to pay a lot more attention to campus safety.”
6. Hiring a chief security officer — and searching for a new police chief
As part of the changes, the university will restructure its leadership to include a new safety position.
The chief security officer will be a cabinet-level spot. The individual will oversee all aspects of campus safety, including laboratory accidents, environmental hazards, harassment reports and policing staff.
“This will ensure there’s someone at a high level at the university continuing to work on safety,” Ballantyne said.
The school plans to post the job description this week and have someone hired in the next month or two. Additionally, the university will be hiring a new police chief — that under the new chain of command would report to the chief security officer — after Dale Brophy announced his retirement last month amid the turmoil from the McCluskey case.
Previously, the person who Brophy was supposed to report to wasn’t always clear or direct.