Student leaders condemn how the University of Utah has responded to Lauren McCluskey’s murder in a surprising public statement opposing victim-blaming

(Jeremy Harmon | Tribune file photo) University of Utah President Ruth Watkins speaks during a vigil for Lauren McCluskey on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018.

Student leaders at the University of Utah have condemned the administration in a surprising public statement — criticizing how it handled fears reported by track star Lauren McCluskey, denied responsibility after her murder and created an atmosphere in which students now worry campus police won’t protect them.

The rebuke comes nearly a year after McCluskey was killed outside her dorm in October. It’s the first time the U.’s student government has put forth such a formal critique, which members say they drafted after reaching a breaking point this week.

“Students are angry,” said Devon Cantwell, a doctoral candidate and senator for the Associated Students of the University of Utah (ASUU) who wrote the resolution. “We continue to be. And we were just really disturbed by some of the statements that the university has made.”

The fallout from McCluskey’s killing hasn’t relented, leading the police chief to retire, an officer to quit, a detective to be fired, and McCluskey’s parents to file a $56 million lawsuit against the school for not protecting their daughter. What prompted students to act this week was the U.’s request for a judge to dismiss that case.

In their motion, the U.’s lawyers argue that campus officers had no obligation to keep McCluskey safe from her attacker because he wasn’t a student or employee and the only reason he was on campus was because McCluskey had, at times, willingly invited him to her dorm. The student resolution — which passed unanimously in both the senate and assembly — states that the government body is “disappointed” by that language.

We "are opposed to statements made by the University of Utah that have been widely interpreted as victim-blaming as part of this lawsuit,” it reads. There will be one more vote before final approval.

Sarah Hong, a sophomore assembly member who co-sponsored the measure, added: “It seems like student voices on this issue have been ignored and dismissed. This resolution ensures they won’t be any more.”

Students also created an Instagram account to share their personal experiences feeling unsafe at the U. Some questioned whether the university should even have a police force or if it should instead be covered by the city’s officers. One wrote: “I’m terrified to be anywhere on campus outside of business hours.”

On Wednesday, the school said that its response to the McCluskey family’s lawsuit has been misinterpreted by “a local media outlet.”

“Nowhere in the motion does it state that the university’s ‘officers had no obligation to protect McCluskey from her attacker,’ ” wrote Phyllis Vetter, general counsel at the U. in a letter sent to all those in student government.

However, the lawsuit does argue: “There is no clearly established constitutional requirement that a university protect its students from sexual harassment perpetrated by visitors to campus who are not under university control.”

McCluskey, 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 whom she had briefly dated. He died by suicide hours later.

She 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 Oct. 9. Many of those concerns were not taken seriously, independent investigators found, and the department had failed to train officers how to recognize the warning signs for escalating domestic violence.

Still, Vetter wrote, while she appreciates student leaders speaking out, campus is “safer today” than it was when that happened.

“The university is deeply committed to improving campus safety,” she continued. “Mounting a legal defense against a monetary judgment cannot and should not be equated with a rejection of that responsibility. … None of the statements in the motion were intended, or should be read, to suggest victim blaming. Let me be clear, the university does not believe that Lauren McCluskey had any responsibility for the heinous actions of her murderer.”

Based on its filing, the U. suggests only the man who killed McCluskey is responsible — not the university.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Photos of Lauren McCluskey on display as It's On Us Utah hosts a celebration of McCluskey's life at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Friday, Oct. 26, 2018.

An anonymous account

Shortly after the ASUU leaders passed their resolution, two U. students created an anonymous Instagram account to share the statement. They also asked for students to share their concerns about their safety since McCluskey’s killing and their thoughts about the U.’s response.

So far, the page has 700 followers and has posted roughly 100 responses in less than 24 hours.

One woman said she feels “terrified.” Another suggested, “This is why victims fear coming forward.”

A third student wrote: “I didn’t report a sexual assault that happened on campus because I didn’t think they’d help.”

The name of the account — “Unsafe U” — is a response to the university’s “Safe U” campaign launched to improve campus security. The school based its fixes on the 30 recommendations from an independent review that was largely critical of how it and its police force handled McCluskey’s concerns.

Spread across campus, plastered on buildings and stuck in the grass are signs that say, “Safety is a Culture” and “Safety comes First. Second. And Third.”

One student commented on the Instagram page: “I’d love to believe these signs, but without policy, they are just words.” Another called the campaign “inherently hypocritical.”

“We know that the university wants this to die,” said one of the students who created the Instagram account. “But we want to make sure that they’re held responsible.” Their work, she added, is meant to add another dimension to ASUU’s resolution, showing the personal experiences behind the strong statement.

The two creators asked for anonymity for fear of retribution by the school. The Salt Lake Tribune verified their identifies and confirmed they are students.

“It’s easy to look at the account and think it’s meant to stoke some fires,” said the other creator. “But I see it as a way to respect Lauren’s memory and use it as a place to actually promote student safety.”

The account will also be used to plan a rally, which the creators said is forthcoming. Students at Brigham Young University in Provo used a similar Instagram strategy before rallying to protest the Honor Code there.

Nothing, they said, changes for them with the university’s statement Wednesday, defending the lawsuit response. It only repeats, they wrote in a late post, “what we’ve been fed for over a year.”

And on Saturday, they’re asking students to wear purple to the homecoming football game. The color represents domestic violence awareness. The two creators said they’re frustrated that the U. is promoting its own “Campus Safety Month” in October instead of the nationally recognized “Domestic Violence Month.”

They wrote in one post, echoing the student government statement: “The university holds responsibility for [McCluskey’s] death and failure to protect her when she reported the stalking, extortion and threats she received on campus. The university must accept responsibility.”

‘Helpless as a student’

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Police cars sit in the parking lot of the University of Utah police department on Wednesday, June 5, 2019.

On the Instagram page and within the student government, some have questioned why the university has a police force at all.

If, as the U. asserts in its lawsuit response, the officers have no legal requirement to protect students from those not affiliated with the school like in McCluskey’s case, what’s the point?

“If they don’t have an obligation to protect us, what are they here for?” asked junior Amanda Shepherd. “Just to give us parking citations?”

McCluskey had twice reached out to Salt Lake City’s police department for help when she felt the U. wasn’t taking her concerns seriously. Both times, Salt Lake City police referred her back to campus.

Salt Lake City police Sgt. Keith Horrocks said Wednesday that’s because any case that happens on university property is outside the jurisdiction for another agency — even if that other agency is nearby.

“We have to follow the jurisdiction of each police department,” he added.

Horrocks said for a student who feels the U.’s officers aren’t responding, the next step would be for that individual to call a federal agency, such as the FBI, or report to the district attorney. Victims can call the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, which also responds to dating violence, added Jenn Oxborrow, the organization’s executive director.

The coalition can help a victim get a protective order, stalking injunction or emergency shelter. Oxborrow calls it “wraparound support." Ideally, it would work in conjunction with police, she said, or police would refer people to the coalition when officers feel they can’t help. Campus police never connected McCluskey to a victim advocate, either on campus or elsewhere.

The ASUU resolution specifically pointed out the concern over police, saying students “cannot access services” from local law enforcement agencies other than the U. Because of frustration over that, Cantwell, the student senator, said the student body leaders wanted to write “an official statement pushing back."

“If this school cares about its students, they should be trying to erase everything they’ve said,” added Kate Button, a junior studying English. “I don’t know anyone who feels safe right now.”

The student government resolution notes that the U. is an open campus and that, with increasing “technology-facilitated violence” — like the extortion threat McCluskey faced — “many of the threats that students face often involve parties who are not current students.”

Vetter, the U.’s general counsel, defended having a police force at the school, calling it “a national best practice for a campus this size.” There are roughly 33,000 students at the university and about 5,000 live on campus.

She added: “The university has its own police force to provide local, campus-centric security for our community — something we believe would be lost if policing were integrated into a larger outside law enforcement entity.”

But several students told The Tribune they no longer feel comfortable calling campus police after officers mishandled McCluskey’s concerns and the lawsuit response from the U. claimed that “no matter how heartbreaking” McCluskey’s murder was, the school doesn’t necessarily have legal liability.

“If something happened to me, I would never go to the university police department,” said Kaitlyn, a junior who asked to be identified only by her first name, also fearing consequences at the school for speaking out. “I genuinely don’t feel like they would do anything.”

She also posted on the Instagram page.

“Lauren was murdered ON CAMPUS, under UPD jurisdiction,” Kaitlyn wrote on Unsafe U. “It was your responsibility to follow a report made by a student under YOUR jurisdiction. Stop failing her, stop failing us. Take responsibility.”

Abrielle Fulwider, a junior, added that she feels “helpless as a student.”

She lives on campus and said she doesn’t feel safe in her dorm. “I don’t feel confident if something happened to me or my friends, that I would be defended by the university.”

So what’s next?

ASUU President AnnaMarie Barnes intends to read the student government’s statement at the next university Academic Senate meeting on Monday — which U. President Ruth Watkins is expected to attend.

When Watkins spoke there last month, it was the first time she had publicly taken questions from faculty and students since McCluskey’s murder. Several students asked that she listen to their concerns rather than take advice from lawyers or donors.

One commenter on the Instagram page wrote: “We don’t want new buildings, we don’t want a bigger stadium, we want to be safe!”

Kaitlyn added: “I want the administration to listen.” And Fulwider said she’s been “feeling sick” about how the U. has responded to the case and sees the Monday meeting as a chance to change course.

Honestly, I just have seen nothing but denial and deflection. That’s really frustrating,” Fulwider said.

She’s proud that the student government took action to counter that. ASUU will also host a listening session for students on Wednesday afternoon at the Student Union.

The measure garnered support from McCluskey’s parents, Jill and Matt, too, who said they were proud of students for drafting the resolution and “standing up for what’s right.” They added: “They give us hope for the future.”

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Matt McCluskey and his wife, Jill, hug during a news conference Thursday, June 27, 2019, after the filing of a lawsuit against the University of Utah for $56 million, alleging campus police could have done more to prevent the murder of their daughter Lauren.

Alumni, too, are speaking out. On the Unsafe U Instagram page, Natasha Breakall shared a picture of her with McCluskey from two years ago when they were roommates. Breakall graduated a few months after McCluskey was killed in 2018.

“I am no longer proud to call myself an alumna,” she said. “The U.’s terrible response is now what our school is known for.”

The only bright spot, she added, has been student leaders standing up and pushing back.