It was the day that Lauren McCluskey would have turned 22.
And on her missed birthday, the University of Utah president and police chief promised they’ve made significant changes to address the many missteps made by the school that investigators have said likely contributed to the student-athlete’s murder on campus last fall.
They’ve begun to increase training for officers to recognize warning signs of domestic and dating violence. Before, no one recognized the potential for that in McCluskey’s concerns, outside investigators said. They’ve started interviewing to hire a victim advocate. Before, police didn’t have one in the department and didn’t talk with those already at the university. They’ve updated policies, created new task forces and shared information across campus, including sending safety reports from housing staff to police. Before, there was limited communication and practically nonexistent relationships between offices, the investigation found.
Still, President Ruth Watkins firmly repeated her decision — acknowledging that she’s faced criticism for it — to not fire any staff who heard McCluskey’s concerns and were slow to act before the student was killed by a man she briefly dated on Oct. 22.
“Some have called for me to fire or remove individuals involved in the case,” Watkins said Tuesday in a presentation to the school’s board of trustees. “I do not believe it serves the ultimate mission of improving campus safety to fire anyone who acted in good faith.”
She had previously said in December that no one would be disciplined, which McCluskey’s parents questioned. The university later amended that to say it “does not comment on or publicize employee discipline,” and it is possible that staff may be required to undergo training or may receive a corrective letter in their file as the university continues to investigate.
The school has declined to say what it is still investigating in the case or when that will be completed.
McCluskey was fatally shot outside her dorm by Melvin S. Rowland, a 37-year-old registered sex offender on parole who lied to her about his age and identity. He died by suicide hours later.
McCluskey had contacted police several times to report extortion and harassment after ending their relationship weeks earlier. But, according to the later review of the university’s response, officers never viewed the case as having the potential for escalating interpersonal violence and never discovered Rowland was on parole. Some of McCluskey’s complaints and others made by her friends to housing staff might have led to Rowland’s arrest for violations of his terms of release.
Before the trustees meeting started Tuesday morning, McCluskey’s mother, Jill, said the university didn’t tell the family that the conversation was happening. And she remains frustrated that no one has been held accountable.
“I have 2 questions: 1) Did you know this meeting is on her birthday? 2) Will you admit that you didn’t respond appropriately to Lauren, which led to her death & take disciplinary action?” Jill McCluskey wrote on Twitter.
Jill and Matt McCluskey and their friend Ron Mittelhammer have all written letters saying the school didn’t take Lauren McCluskey’s concerns seriously and that the police department had a habit of ignoring women. Jill has said the university never apologized to the family and has largely stopped talking to them. The McCluskeys are considering a lawsuit.
Matt McCluskey wrote in a statement Tuesday: “We commend the University of Utah for trying to adopt measures that will make the campus a safer place for students. These measures are a first step. Moving forward, comprehensive reforms, personal accountability and acceptance of responsibility are essential to assure parents that their daughters and sons will be safe."
At the discussion Tuesday, Watkins acknowledged Lauren McCluskey’s birthday and called her death “an absolute tragedy.” She then gave an update to the university’s trustees about what the school has done to implement the 30 recommendations made by the independent team that reviewed how the case was handled. She was surrounded by administrators from departments across campus, including the dean of students, the director of housing, the police chief and the chief human resources officer.
“I’m committed to addressing each of the shortcomings identified,” the president said.
The trustees asked few questions, mostly listened to the report and then offered praise for the steps the university has taken. Only one questioned the lack of discipline.
“How can you reassure us as trustees that with the specific circumstances that happened in the McCluskey case there has been proper accountability for the people involved in those incidents?” Phillip Clinger asked.
Watkins said she’s been “guided by my best judgment” and after “difficult conversations” decided she wouldn’t fire anyone. Another trustee asked if she had the resources she needed; the president said the school has implemented “awareness, training and education that happened at a minimal cost.”
Police Chief Dale Brophy added that 16 of the 30 recommendations were for his department to resolve. All, he said, are in place or ongoing.
Officers, dispatchers and security personnel have been trained to recognize domestic violence warning signs by a specialized sergeant at the Salt Lake City Police Department. They’re planning to complete additional lethality assessment training with the Domestic Violence Coalition by mid-March — which would be six months after McCluskey’s death. They’ve also taught all employees how to look at different databases, including parole status.
The department has hired a new evidence technician and will interview for a domestic violence advocate and a police spokesperson this week. Two postings for detectives — one focused on interpersonal violence — and one posting for a lieutenant have also gone online.
Investigators particularly criticized the U. for the lax communication among officers, how much time they took in responding to McCluskey and how little they interacted with her in person.
She had first contacted the campus police department on Oct. 12 to report concerns about Rowland and that she was getting messages threatening to distribute compromising photos of her. She continued to contact campus officers for days after that and, worried they weren’t moving quickly enough, twice reached out to Salt Lake City police.
But she was redirected to the U.’s department each time.
The detective assigned to investigate there did not open a formal case until Oct. 19 and then did not return to work until after McCluskey had been killed. McCluskey tried contacting her in the hours before her death, too, but didn’t reach her. The officer she did talk to that morning never relayed her concerns to anyone else in the department.
Brophy said there will now be an on-call detective available at any time, who is updated on all pending files so nothing falls through a hole when someone is off. He encourages all of his officers to talk to victims “in a timely manner.”
“Overall, the department of public safety is dedicated to all of these recommendations,” he said. “We don’t want to have that happen again.”
The force has also applied for accreditation, talked with state agencies, including the Department of Corrections, and begun quarterly meetings with other offices on campus to share reports. Primarily, that includes housing staff.
McCluskey’s friends had reported to housing that they were scared by Rowland’s control over her, how he talked about bringing guns to campus and often stayed in her room. Dorm employees considered — but did not file — a report and did not pass on the information to officers.
Student Housing Director Barb Remsburg said her department has talked to students about the guest policy and looked to increase safety by adding more security cameras near the dorms. They’ve also simplified their incident reporting process so that one person is reviewing those and passing them along to officers, if needed.
“We want to make sure that we are responding as quickly as possible,” she added, noting that most of her efforts are focused on awareness.
The university’s chief human resources officer called the implementation of the recommendations a “daunting task,” but said all departments are committed to the plan. The vice president of student affairs said she was “deeply concerned” by the report on the school’s shortcomings but believes they can be addressed.
Watkins said: “I’m committed to doing all that I can to ensure the safety of our students.”