Utah lawmaker, spurred by the death of Lauren McCluskey, wants colleges to create safety plans and train officers about signs of domestic and dating violence

(Courtesy of the University of Utah) Lauren McCluskey is seen on August 30, 2017 in Salt Lake City.

Three months after a University of Utah student was killed on campus by a man she briefly dated, a state senator wants all of Utah’s public colleges to develop detailed response plans for cases of sexual assault, stalking, and dating and domestic violence — with an emphasis on training officers how to recognize warning signs.

“It’s just too raw, the tragic death of Lauren McCluskey” said Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, sponsor of SB 134. “But she will make a difference.”

McCluskey, a 21-year-old track star, was fatally shot outside her dorm on Oct. 22 by Melvin S. Rowland, a 37-year-old registered sex offender on parole who died by suicide hours later. She had contacted police several times to report harassment after ending their relationship weeks earlier. But, according to a later review of the university’s response, officers never viewed the case as having the potential for escalating interpersonal violence.

And they did not prioritize McCluskey’s concerns.

“Of course, it’s on my mind,” Iwamoto said Thursday during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “And this bill, too, is for survivors.”

The proposal, which will move to the floor after a unanimous vote, would require all eight of the state’s public universities, as well as the technical colleges, to develop campus safety plans that specifically address relationship violence and sexual assault. Each school would need to include in the plans: where victims can find resources, what the institution does to keep those reports confidential, how a university informs the campus community after a crime and how students can request a security escort.

The measure also calls for all college students groups — including sports teams, clubs, fraternities and sororities — to take training annually on safety and preventing assault. And it will require more coordination among the various offices on campus and between university police and city and state law enforcement.

In McCluskey’s case, two of her friends told staff at the school’s dorms that they were scared by Rowland’s control over her, how he talked about bringing guns to campus and often stayed in her room. Housing employees considered — but did not file — a report and did not pass on the information to university police.

McCluskey also twice called Salt Lake City police when she was worried the officers at the U. weren’t moving quickly enough. But the dispatcher referred her back to campus each time.

Iwamoto said “one of the biggest things” she wants to see if her bill passes is better communication among departments and more training. Had housing employees told campus police about the gun report, officers might have taken the case more seriously. And had officers looked at Rowland’s parole status, that report could have led to his arrest for violation of his terms of release.

“There’s so much more we can do. We can do more. We really can,” said Salt Lake City police Chief Mike Brown.

The University of Utah’s spokesman Chris Nelson also said the measure is “a really positive step forward.”

“It ties in nicely with what we’re trying to do with the recommendations,” he added.

The independent review team that examined the school’s shortcomings in the case provided a list of 30 fixes, and the university has begun putting those in place, Nelson said. They include having the police department hire more officers and a victim advocate; develop a working relationship with existing victim advocates elsewhere on campus; and train all police staff about interpersonal violence issues.

The investigators particularly criticized the U. for not seeing that McCluskey’s early reports of extortion were a sign that the situation might get worse. She had told campus police on Oct. 13 that Rowland or his friends were asking for $1,000 in exchange for not releasing compromising pictures of their relationship.

“When we send our children to college, we want them to gain their independence, learn, get involved in activities and campus life and build relationships that will last a lifetime,” Iwamoto said. “Unfortunately, the unthinkable can happen, and we need safeguards in place.”

Schools would be required to draft their safety plans and start training by July. Each college would also be required to report twice to the Legislature each year on their successes or failures.

A campus police department, said Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, should “be ready and able to handle a problem” and didn’t appear able to when McCluskey reached out. “I think we need to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

Most universities in the state have safety plans in place, but many are not publicized or not comprehensive, don’t include police phone numbers or mention relationship violence. This measure would require those by state code, and schools that don’t comply could face penalties from the Utah System of Higher Education.

“We support this,” said Geoff Landward, general counsel for the system. “It sets the right message for all of our schools and our state.”

Both Landward and Iwamoto praised Utah State University for changes it has made in recent years to improve safety on its Logan campus. Those have come after a slate of sexual assaults reported since at least 2013. In one, a student told her dorm resident adviser that she had been raped; her report was not forwarded to police. In another, a student said she told campus administrators that a fraternity member had raped her; they did not offer help, she said, and knew about five other women assaulted by the same man before her. (The university has denied receiving those earlier reports.)

Since then, the school has worked to require all fraternities and sororities, which are private entities franchised by national organizations, to apply for recognition as official student organizations. That will allow the school to directly monitor them and hold them to standards of conduct.

It has also replaced the coordinator in its Title IX office — after allegations of unresponsiveness there — hired more victim advocates and put in place annual student and staff trainings about assault and prevention. Iwamoto said those improvements were part of her model for the bill. Mara Haight, executive director of the Rape Recovery Center, said it’s a good example for other campuses to follow.

“It’s so impactful to have these student groups trained in how to respond when someone reports to them and how to change the culture on campus so sexual violence isn’t tolerated,” she said.

Most of the public comment period, though, was focused on the U. and missteps there. Jim Webster, a resident who lives by campus, said he called Salt Lake City police the night McCluskey was killed because he’d seen the news reports about officers searching for Rowland nearby.

“I was told by the dispatcher that they have had absolutely no communication with the university, and I needed to talk to them,” he said. “They acted like ‘Why are you calling us?’ You’re not part of our group.’”

One woman, a former faculty member at the university, said when she went to university police to report her own concerns about a threatening situation, she was told by an administrator: “You are not the first person that has reported this concern to me, and you won’t be the last.”

Then, Judith Zimmerman, a researcher who later won an unrelated lawsuit against the U. on whistleblower retaliation, said they added: “No one at the university will help you.”

Mohan Sudabattula, a senior at the school, said he feels like the campus only makes changes when it’s reacting to something like McCluskey’s death.

“We talk about student safety as if it’s a priority,” he said. “But we only step in after something has happened.”

Sudabattula believes Iwamoto’s bill would set a precedent for colleges to act and have a plan ahead of time. “This is something that is in my mind long overdue and completely necessary.”

Another bill proposed this session, called “Lauren’s Law," was also spurred by McCluskey’s death and focuses on holding gun owners responsible for what people do with firearms they loan or negligently allow out of their control.