The parents of slain track star Lauren McCluskey are suing the University of Utah in a $56 million civil rights case, alleging that campus police could have prevented their daughter’s killing — and that the school’s president was irresponsible in insisting otherwise.
Jill and Matt McCluskey said the lawsuit, filed Thursday, was “a last resort.” They wanted an apology, but say they never got one. They asked the school to fire the officers involved, but that didn’t happen. They tried working with the President Ruth Watkins to “remedy the situation.” They say she wouldn’t respond to their emails.
“Matt and I realized that the only way to improve campus safety is to file a lawsuit,” Jill McCluskey said at a news conference. Her voice shook, and she hugged her husband after finishing the statement.
The court filing is not a surprise. The McCluskeys have said they were considering it for months. The decisive point, they noted, was when Watkins said at a December news conference that an independent review — which was highly critical of the U.’s actions and said officers there ignored Lauren’s concerns — “does not offer any reason to believe this tragedy could have been prevented.”
“That statement made me physically ill,” Jill McCluskey added.
Her daughter Lauren, a 21-year-old student-athlete, was fatally shot outside her campus dorm on Oct. 22 by Melvin S. Rowland, a 37-year-old registered sex offender on parole who she had briefly dated. He died by suicide hours later.
Lauren had contacted campus police several times in the weeks before that to report harassment — and his threats to release compromising photos of her — after ending their relationship on Oct. 9. Many of those concerns were not taken seriously, investigators found.
The lawsuit alleges that officers had Lauren fill out her first witness statement in the lobby of the department and “rushed Lauren to finish up, telling her that they were only concerned about the extortion and that she could just leave everything else about the stalking, harassment domestic violence and dating violence out of the statement.”
Her mother said that shows “they were minimizing her and trying to get her to go away.” And Lauren twice called Salt Lake City police’s dispatch line worried that no one was listening to her.
“Lauren’s death was preventable and the murder occurred because of the University of Utah’s repeated failure to respond to Lauren’s multiple and continuing pleas for help,” added Jim McConkie, the attorney who is representing the family.
The university responded to the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, with a statement from Watkins saying the school will answer it “through the appropriate channels."
Watkins also said: “While there are differences in how we would characterize some of the events leading to Lauren’s tragic murder, let me say again that we share the McCluskey family’s commitment to improving campus safety."
The filing is based largely on the independent report about how the school handled McCluskey’s concerns. The review team found that officers did not recognize the warning signs of potential domestic violence. They also never discovered Rowland was on parole for felony sex abuse; some of McCluskey’s allegations could have been violations of his terms of release.
Additionally, an officer never relayed concerns that McCluskey reported the morning before she was killed, and a detective assigned to investigate didn’t do any work on the case until after McCluskey had died.
The lawsuit was filed against both that officer, the detective, the university and the state, which funds the public school. It also names the school’s Police Chief Dale Brophy and officials in the housing department.
The filing calls Lauren’s death “tragic, avoidable and untimely” and accuses the university of refusing to respond — making it liable. It says the student, her family and friends all reached out more than 20 times to report concerns.
The university, the lawyers allege, “failed to take any action reasonably calculated to end the abuse and prevent its reoccurrence or to otherwise investigate the allegations, thereby acting with deliberate indifference and subjecting Lauren to further and ongoing abuse.”
The biggest thrust of the complaint is that the U. failed in its obligations to follow Title IX, the federal law that requires schools to swiftly investigate reports of sexual violence and provide services to individuals who report discrimination or violence. It also prohibits gender bias.
The lawsuit claims that police and other university officials didn’t prioritize Lauren’s concerns because she was a woman; they viewed her as “unreasonable, hysterical, hypersensitive, paranoid” and acted with “irrational gender stereotypes.”
That comes, they allege, as the police department has struggled with a culture of treating female officers poorly. One officer told the lawyers that her male coworkers would pee in her work bag. Another said that the male officers there refused to believe a woman who reported that she was raped.
The point, McConkie said, is to increase safety on the university’s campus and compel officers to take accounts from women seriously.
“There are serious problems, systemic problems," McConkie added. “What the university has refused to do is take any responsibility or any disciplinary action.”
The McCluskeys are asking for $56 million in damages for emotional trauma and the loss of Lauren’s educational opportunities. Any money raised through the litigation, the family has promised, will go to the foundation set up to honor Lauren by supporting other student athletes.
McConkie suggested: “This figure is large and it will put a stop to this nonsense.”
The lawsuit also offers a few new details about the case not previously shared by police. That includes that Rowland took McCluskey to shoot guns with his friends on Sept. 23 — about a month before the slaying. And, her friends told the family’s attorneys, Rowland said that he wanted to buy McCluskey a handgun “so that she could protect herself against advances from other men.”
As a convicted felon, Rowland was prohibited from having firearms. That could have led to his arrest.
McCluskey’s friends had told housing officials that Rowland had talked about bringing a gun to campus. But the staff never passed that information on to police. The lawsuit alleges that housing employees rarely called campus officers because of a general feeling that they “were often unhelpful and their tactics were routinely counterproductive.”
But the filing still comes down hard on those housing employees for failing to act. The dorm staff knew from Lauren’s friends that she was in a potentially abusive relationship. They told a resident assistant that she had bruises and Rowland was stalking her, the suit says. A housing resident director and area coordinator said she was an adult who deserved privacy and did not file a report.
The individuals there and in the police department were inadequately trained to recognize the signs of domestic violence, the lawsuit continues.
Matt McCluskey, Lauren’s dad, also criticized the school for holding an awards ceremony earlier this month that honored three employees who were involved in the case. He hopes that filing a legal challenge will hold the U. more accountable and that administrators do more to protect those on campus instead of celebrate themselves.
“We had hoped to have an adult conversation with the University of Utah. … Regrettably, the administration has chosen a path of defensiveness, denial and no accountability," he said. “We cannot stand by while students are in peril.”
Ron Mittelhammer, a family friend, spoke, too, at the news conference. He suggested that “university officials are complicit in the murder of Lauren.”
Lauren had written in her police statement that Rowland had a gun, the lawsuit alleges. Police, then, failed in their “duty to respond.” Mittelhammer said they had the knowledge of what was going on but didn’t act. They didn’t tell Lauren about her rights, they didn’t help her get a stalking injunction and they didn’t direct her to a victim advocate. They also didn’t ban Rowland from campus.
The family says any of those — or any of the 30 recommended fixes suggested by the independent investigators — could have helped prevent Lauren’s death. There is reason to believe, the McCluskeys said, that their daughter would be alive if someone had stepped in.
Jill McCluskey also believes she could stop other women from being injured or abused on campus if the university would have worked with the family. On Dec. 26, she emailed Watkins: “I hope that you would be willing to partner with us to address clear and obvious deficiencies in safety at the university and also openly admit that people failed Lauren and that they will be held accountable.”
The university president never responded, according to copies of the messages obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune in a public records request.
On Thursday, Jill McCluskey added: “The University of Utah is on the wrong side of history in how they handled Lauren’s case and how they responded to her death."