University of Utah police apologize for including Lauren McCluskey’s name on the program for awards her parents said border 'on obscene’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The University of Utah police department gave out three awards on Wed., June 5, 2019 for how school employees handled Lauren McCluskey's case last fall.

The University of Utah police department has apologized for including murdered student Lauren McCluskey’s name on the program for a Wednesday ceremony that honored school employees.

The department had given awards to a dispatcher for how she responded to McCluskey’s concerns before her slaying and two administrators for how they dealt with questions after it — despite a blistering independent review that found several staffers mishandled her case.

McCluskey’s parents — who have criticized how police dismissed their daughter’s reports of harassment for weeks up before her murder — said Wednesday the honors seemed disrespectful and out of touch.

“I have nothing against the individuals,” said Matt McCluskey, Lauren’s father, in an email, “but the idea of the police department giving awards for the handling of Lauren’s case borders on obscene.”

Just before noon on Thursday, the department posted its narrowly framed apology in two tweets on its Twitter feed, which had 175 followers at that time. It concluded: “We deeply regret and apologize for any pain that the inclusion of Lauren’s name on the program may have caused to the McCluskey family.”

When asked for further clarification about the scope of the apology, Dan Metcalf, the new spokesperson for campus police, said, “I think the statement speaks for itself” and hung up.

He called back to say hanging up had been “a misunderstanding" and answered more questions. Asked what led the department to issue the apology, Metcalf said, “the statement is heartfelt. We just felt it was necessary to do so.”

He was unsure whether the school will communicate the statement more widely, or directly to the McCluskey family.

Matt McCluskey responded Thursday that he’d “rather not comment" on the apology — which the family has previously said the U. has never provided before. “The main point,” the father said, “is that people are being given awards, but that no one (to our knowledge) has been reprimanded.”

On Wednesday, Metcalf had said he helped create the program for the award event and it was “not advertised to the public.”

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with recognizing folks who do their job well,” he said, later adding: “These folks were doing a difficult job. That’s worth commending. There’s nothing obscene about that.”

Among 20 awards, two for “campus partnership” were given to Chris Nelson, a spokesman for the university, and Lori McDonald, who at the time of McCluskey’s death was the dean of students. She has since been promoted to vice president for student affairs.

Nelson said the recognitions “were not meant to be self-congratulatory to the department’s handling of the McCluskey case."

He attended the celebration Wednesday afternoon, which was held within the department and was not publicly announced. The department has roughly 130 employees; most attended the event with their families. “I viewed it as just an attempt by the Department of Public Safety to better recognize the important work they’re doing," Nelson said.

Many groups on campus, Nelson said, including staff at University of Utah Hospital, hand out excellence awards each year. This is the first time, he said, that the police department has held a ceremony. The 17 other recipients were recognized for accomplishments from apprehending a robber to arresting suspects in bicycle thefts.

The awards program says Nelson managed the release of crisis information after McCluskey’s on-campus death last fall “while maintaining a calm demeanor under stressful conditions." Nelson said his team put out campus safety alerts that night and for several other incidents during the year.

McDonald, the program adds, “was responsible for managing campus support services to students and victim families.” She was given the award, Metcalf said, for being a part of the university’s triage team.

“She displayed great leadership, compassion and courage under very difficult circumstances,” the program says, including during the murder of ChenWei Guo, an international student who was fatally shot during a carjacking on campus in 2017.

McDonald stayed in close contact with McCluskey’s parents after their daughter was shot on Oct. 22 — texting them often and mailing their daughter’s belongings from her dorm back to her home in Washington. McCluskey’s mom, Jill, said the administrator was “nice and compassionate to us.”

“But it would be weird to give an award for that,” she added in an email.

The parents have previously said they are considering a lawsuit against the school for the many missteps outlined in the review.

Lauren, a 21-year-old track athlete, was fatally shot outside her campus dorm by Melvin S. Rowland, a 37-year-old registered sex offender on parole who she had briefly dated. He died by suicide hours later.

She had reached out to campus police several times, including that morning, to report concerns. Many of those were not taken seriously, investigators found.

However, they noted the professionalism of a dispatcher who was given a “distinguished service” award Wednesday for “exceptional customer service to the McCluskey family.” The dispatcher talked to both Jill and Lauren McCluskey on Oct. 10 — the first time they reached out to officers at the school.

Jill McCluskey called to say she was afraid that a man her daughter had briefly dated and broken up with was dangerous. Lauren was planning to pick up her Jeep from Rowland, and the mother feared he might hurt her. She told the dispatcher that he had lied about his age and criminal background.

The dispatcher tried to reassure Jill that a security guard could help. “That will be totally easy for us to do,” she said, according to the audio that has since been released of the calls.

She hung up and called Lauren, who at first declined an escort. She said Rowland or his friend would be dropping off the car outside her dorm. The dispatcher suggested having Rowland instead leave the car at the police department, where Lauren could wait inside.

She declined, and the dispatcher called Jill with an update. She promised to have a guard walk around the dorms around 5 p.m. as a precaution. Lauren later called back and agreed to have a security officer help her.

The dispatcher spoke with Jill and Lauren seven times that day.

By the end of the conversations, Jill thanked the dispatcher “for looking out” for her daughter. “Thank you so much. You guys are wonderful,” she said.

The team of independent investigators who reviewed the university’s response to Lauren’s concerns applauded that dispatcher. “We find the conduct of the dispatcher … to have been appropriate.” The department, it added, “should recognize [the] dispatcher … [for] proper handling of that call.” It was one of the few positive remarks in their report.

But those early calls, the team pointed out, also pointed to a systemic failure within the police department. None of them were heard by campus police until after McCluskey’s slaying — a gap that they say was one of the first missteps by the department as it failed to recognize escalating threats to her safety.

When McCluskey called back on Oct. 12 and 13 to report that she thought Rowland was extorting her for money in exchange for not releasing a compromising photo of her, none of the officers knew about the previous concerns or the request for a security guard.

They also did not recognize warning signs of potential domestic violence and never discovered Rowland was on parole. In fact, a detective didn’t open a case until a week later. And when she did, she didn’t do any work on it until after McCluskey was killed.

McCluskey had tried reaching out to her in the hours before her death, too, but wasn’t able to reach her. And the officer she did eventually talk to that morning never relayed her concerns to anyone else in the department.

In the aftermath of the case, that detective has since left the university. It’s not clear if she resigned or was fired. McCluskey’s parents have been critical of her actions, as well as the officer their daughter spoke with that day.

Additionally, the report found that officers never referred McCluskey to a victim advocate, often communicated with her by email or text rather than in person, conducted an interview with her in the public lobby of the station and didn’t ensure important information was followed up on when assigned detectives were off duty.

Housing officials, too, knew Rowland talked about bringing a gun to campus but never reported it to police.

Overall, the reviewers said, staff throughout the university largely left Lauren “to assess the dangerousness of her situation on her own.”

“As we examined the totality of this troubling event,” they wrote, “we discovered that there were several indications that Lauren McCluskey was in trouble.”

The school’s president, Ruth Watkins, initially said the school would not scrutinize the performance of individual officers. After instead requesting, and then receiving, the independent review, she maintained during a news conference that no individual officers would be disciplined for their actions — or lack of response. The independent report, she added, showed there’s no “reason to believe” the slaying could have been prevented.

The family has strongly disputed that statement. And the awards, they said Wednesday, came as a surprise seven months after their daughter died.