Robert Gehrke: At the University of Utah, ‘Safety Is A Culture,’ so let’s hope the culture of complacency is no more

Robert Gehrke

This week my daughter started college, attending the University of Utah, my alma mater, and I got to show her around the campus that is really barely recognizable from my days there.

Nervous kid. Proud parent.

Also a concerned parent. And I suspect among the nearly 12,000 young women attending the university, there are more than a few equally anxious parents out there.

The “what-ifs” in the back of those parents’ minds were powerfully driven home Monday, when Jill McCluskey, the mother of slain U. senior Lauren McCluskey reflected on her daughter’s first day of college.

“Lauren & I drove her Jeep to [the U.] for her to start college 4 years ago,” Jill McCluskey tweeted above a smiling picture of her and her daughter, bags piled in the back seat. “She was so excited to be a student athlete.“

“I wish campus police believed her & responded with urgency when she told them a man was committing crimes against her & she was scared.”

On Saturday, my daughter went to a freshman orientation where U. President Ruth Watkins said the right things, emphasizing the importance of safety and talking about some of the resources available.

Walking across campus, there were signs everywhere — literally — reiterating the message. “Safety is a Culture,” they said. Every syllabus students receive for their classes includes a mandatory safety statement, notifying students of resources available.

Last week, my colleague Courtney Tanner detailed six reforms the university is putting in place as a result of its failure to protect Lauren McCluskey.

They include upgrading building alarms, consolidating night classes and posting officers outside them, improving nighttime transportation, and hiring a chief security officer for the campus.

These new measures are all fine and taken as a whole will probably improve campus safety, and that’s a good thing. Certainly the countless small steps and changes in attitude by tens of thousands of students and faculty will improve campus safety.

But it doesn’t address how we got here: It wasn’t complacency among University of Utah students that cost Lauren McCluskey her life. She did everything she should have done — and then some.

She reported her concerns to police again and again and again. When she felt she wasn’t being taken seriously, her friend took her to the station so they couldn’t be ignored. Her concerned mother even contacted police on her daughter’s behalf. Her friends notified dorm supervisors of their concerns. Her stalker was reported to have brought a gun on campus and still nothing was done.

As my daughter suggested, maybe officers wouldn’t have been so cavalier in dismissing the concerns if a male student had reported being blackmailed, stalked and harassed.

Regardless, Lauren was ignored and that negligence cost her her life.

It wasn’t students who needed to take their safety seriously, it was the school. “Safety is a culture,” as all those signs say but the culture that needed changing was at the U. police department that failed Lauren.

Perhaps that is changing. The campus police chief has announced he’s stepping aside and you sure hope her killing has served as a wake-up call to officers to listen to and believe students when they say they are being victimized and afraid.

“When you’ve demonstrated in the past you don’t take us seriously, people are less likely to go to you in the future,” my daughter said. “Saying, ‘Oh, we’ve changed,’ that doesn’t really mean that much.”

Indeed, given the embarrassing public relations spin and the avoidance of accountability by the university, the talk of prioritizing the safety of students rings hollow.

So now comes the hard part for President Watkins and the police department: Prove you’ve changed. Earn back the trust of students and parents.

And believe me when I say that you have tens of thousands of parents pulling for you, because when they drop their kids off for college, every one of them is entrusting you, not just with the education of our children, but their safety, and not one of those parents should have to experience the horror that Lauren McCluskey’s family has gone through because the university failed them.