University of Utah students demand to speak to President Ruth Watkins — and they’re planning a walkout over safety concerns

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) President Ruth Watkins of the University of Utah addresses an academic senate meeting on Sept. 30, 2019 at the Henry Eyring Building on the campus.

A group of University of Utah students are demanding a meeting with the school’s president to discuss their concerns about safety — including their perception that campus police “appear unequipped to assist us” — that have built up over the last year since track star Lauren McCluskey was killed on campus.

The students have listed accountability and transparency issues in a protest declaration they plan to deliver to the administration — whether U. President Ruth Watkins agrees to sit down with them or not. Either way, they say, they’ll also be holding a campuswide walkout Monday, one day before the one-year anniversary of McCluskey’s murder.

“When we’ve tried to talk to administrators, they’ve been very vague. It’s been disheartening and frustrating,” said one of the student organizers. Another organizer added: “They need to talk to us. It’s been a year, and we’ve had no conversations on improving anything.”

The two asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation by the school for speaking out. The Salt Lake Tribune verified their identifies and confirmed they are currently enrolled as students.

They are part of the group who started the popular Instagram account “Unsafe U,” where students have been sharing their negative experiences with safety on campus, particularly the police department, as a response to the university’s “Safe U” campaign launched to improve security. The account was created late last month, shortly after student leaders at the university published a statement criticizing the school for how it has handled McCluskey’s case.

The university said Tuesday that the students have not reached out directly to Watkins’ office to set up a meeting, but suggested they can sign up online for a slot during her monthly student office hours. Meetings are limited to 20 minutes and up to three students; two spots were available, both at the end of November.

“We welcome the opportunity to meet with students and hear feedback about how the university can be a safer place,” said U. spokeswoman Annalisa Purser in a statement. “This is what institutions of higher education are all about. We are fully supportive of students’ commitment to important issues such as safety and their right to advocate for changes.”

The president’s website requires students to enter their names; the group which wants to talk to Watkins was hoping to go in together and present themselves only as “Unsafe U.” Purser said they can also call the office to set up a meeting that fits their preferences.

They currently have a Monday meeting set up with U. Senior Vice President Dan Reed. Reed has previously said the university is working to rebuild trust with students.

The group wants a permanent oversight board made up of students to be created to hold hearings and investigate patterns of misconduct in the university’s police department. The student board would release an annual report so administrators wouldn’t be able to “cover up or play down” the issues, they said.

They also request that police officers respond to student reports within 12 hours (there have been concerns of delays, up to weeks, including in McCluskey’s case). “We feel that’s a very reasonable expectation,” said one of the student organizers. “We see these as nonnegotiable to making campus safer.”

The students are also asking that officers be better trained, know which campus resources to direct students to, and know how to talk to those impacted by domestic or interpersonal violence. They want more funding for both the police department and the Center for Student Wellness. And they don’t want any of that money to come from student fees or an increase in tuition.

“These urgent and highly consequential student safety issues are not new to our campus nor are they new to any campus across the nation,” they wrote. “This, however, does not provide our administration with any excuse as to why the above demands cannot be met.”

They have an online petition for students to sign (21 have, so far, as of Tuesday evening), and their walkout will be Monday at 11:30 a.m. at the Park Building, 201 Presidents Circle.

On Wednesday, McCluskey’s mom, Jill, tweeted: “I hope all @UUtah students and faculty join in the campus-wide walkout.”

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.

The university has since announced it is spending $1 million to make campus safer, including upgrades to building alarms, having police patrol outside of night classes and hiring a chief security officer to be the point person for all of campus safety (including overseeing the chief of police, who retired amid turmoil following McCluskey’s death).

Such changes are not the focus of the student group. “When students come forward to university police or other entities on campus, people aren’t heard,” one of the organizers said. “We know what’s going on here because we live it. We want our ideas to be heard.”

Over the past month students have been more vocal with their concerns about safety on campus — including speaking out at an academic senate meeting and protesting at a football game. Many worry whether campus police would protect them if something happened on campus and some question why the university even has its own law enforcement agency.

Concerns amplified when the university responded to a lawsuit filed by McCluskey’s parents, suggesting the case be dismissed because campus police have no legal liability for not keeping McCluskey safe, in part because her attacker wasn’t a student or employee.