100 University of Utah students walk out of class in protest of how their school has handled Lauren McCluskey’s case and other concerns reported by women

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Piper Salazar and other University of Utah students walked out of classes Monday, Oct. 21, 2019, in a show of solidarity to call attention for increased campus safety and protest the school's response after a student was murdered on campus last year. Monday's walkout comes one day prior to the 1-year anniversary of the murder of Lauren McCluskey.

The students stood outside for an hour, passing around a heavy gray megaphone and taking turns shouting into it about the times they’ve felt unsafe and unprotected on campus.

“I was raped as a freshman,” one woman read from an anonymous account. “I tried to report it. But university police did nothing to help.”

Another recounted: “I asked for an advocate. They denied this. I asked to have a woman in the room while I was interviewed by police. They also denied this.”

“They said I had no solid proof,” added a third, who read from a paper in front of her as her voice shook in describing an abusive boyfriend. “And the officers refused to further investigate.”

Their stories were broken by sniffles and sobs as they told them from the stone steps outside the offices of University of Utah administrators Monday morning. Nearly 100 students — mainly women — had walked out of class and staged a protest to talk about their concerns with the U.’s police department. It came one day before the first anniversary of student-athlete Lauren McCluskey’s murder.

And, the crowd asserted, the culture of not believing women like her and others has not changed since then.

Shelby Gonzales, who mentored McCluskey, said days before she was killed, McCluskey had reached out to her to say she didn’t feel like her concerns were being taken seriously by campus police.

“She told me they didn’t care,” she said into the megaphone, looking up at the windows of the Park Building, where a few people looked down on the protest. “The university police department didn’t even do the absolute minimum in responding to Lauren’s requests for help. Now it’s been a year, and we need our administrators to get on board. Name your failures.”

The students wore purple to honor domestic violence victims and asked the U. to apologize. Most cheered loudly any time someone mentioned accountability.

And their posters pushed back against the school. One read: “Where were you when Lauren needed U?” Another said, “U failed Lauren.” One student scrawled in highlighters, “How many of us have to die before U take action?”

Allison Billmeyer, a senior studying acting, held one that added, “F--- U for not believing me.”

Billmeyer said she filed a complaint with the university two years ago when a male student in her theater class started harassing her. The two had briefly dated before he became violent, she said, threatening to kill her, stalking her, screaming at her and suggesting he would hurt her friends.

“They didn’t do anything to keep me safe,” Billmeyer said. “They said they couldn’t do anything about it. So he stayed in the same class with me for a year.”

The walkout was organized by a group of students who started the popular Instagram account “Unsafe U,” where many have been sharing their negative experiences with safety on campus as a response to the university’s “Safe U” campaign, launched to improve security after McCluskey’s slaying.

The awareness posters made by the school — claiming “Safety is first. Second. And third.” — were stuck in the frozen grass on the chilly October morning as students rallied around them with their own messages. “That’s a fake promise,” said Serena Madsen, a junior, who said she no longer feels safe taking night classes.

Over the past month, students have been more vocal with their concerns about safety on campus — speaking out at an academic senate meeting, protesting at a football game and publishing a statement criticizing the university. Some have questioned why the U. has its own law enforcement agency instead of being covered by Salt Lake City police.

The UnsafeU group had demanded a meeting with U. President Ruth Watkins, who was out of town Monday on a pre-planned trip to Washington, D.C. Instead, they sat down with Senior Vice President Dan Reed and Vice President for Student Affairs Lori McDonald, who also attended the protest.

“I do have hope from that meeting,” said graduate student Rebecca Hardenbrook. “But,” she said, looking directly at Reed and McDonald standing in the back, “You’re not doing enough. Plain and simple. Students are not currently safe on campus. And it’s not our job to protect ourselves.”

McDonald later told The Salt Lake Tribune that she appreciates students being “incredibly brave” and speaking out. Reed said the university is “committed to responding to some of their suggestions immediately.”

Those recommendations from students came in a declaration of protest posted online last week and read at the rally. They want a permanent oversight board made up of students to investigate patterns of misconduct in the university’s police department. They also request that officers respond to student reports within 12 hours (there have been concerns of delays, up to weeks, including in McCluskey’s case).

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

Before that, she and her friends had reached out more than 20 times to report that Rowland was harassing and stalking her. Those concerns were not taken seriously, independent investigators found.

Students continue to be upset by the department’s response, as well as how the university has answered a $56 million lawsuit filed by McCluskey’s parents. In asking a judge to dismiss the case, the school suggested campus police had no legal liability for not keeping McCluskey safe, in part because her attacker wasn’t a student or employee.

“Lauren was not responded to with the urgency that she deserved,” said Brooke Martin, who was one of McCluskey’s track teammates.

The university has since announced it is spending $1 million to make campus safer, including upgrades to building alarms, having police patrol outside 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).

The school also held a reflection event Monday for all of those impacted by interpersonal violence, but few attended and the back rows of pews in the campus chapel were filled mostly by administrators.

Sophomore Moira Gray said she believes the issues are institutional and need to be changed. McCluskey “was senselessly murdered on campus after she did everything right,” Gray added.

Several shouted at the building, “Did you hear that?” to her comment. And when the rally ended, the megaphone sat on the cement as a reminder while the students walked back to class.