The University of Utah has received a $300,000 federal grant to improve how it responds to cases of stalking and dating and domestic violence on campus — funding that comes after four women there have been killed over the past three years by partners or men they had dated.
The award money from the U.S. Department of Justice, announced Thursday, will go toward implementing additional training for police officers and hiring a new part-time victim advocate at the school’s Center for Student Wellness. It will also be used to partner with the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, which will lead the changes.
“Hopefully, we can get the university back on track,” said Jenn Oxborrow, the coalition’s executive director.
The university has faced criticism over the last year, including a walkout by students and a protest at a football game, for failing to take concerns from women seriously after student-athlete Lauren McCluskey was killed outside her dorm in October 2018. Several current and former students have come forward since saying for years the police department on campus ignored reports of rape and harassment.
The school has already been working to improve safety during that time — including installing more lights and consolidating night classes — but this grant will be specifically focused on highlighting resources and coordinating services with community partners and campus offices. Among those are Salt Lake City police, the Rape Recovery Center and the U.’s Housing and Residential Education.
“The U. really missed the opportunity to give McCluskey more options,” Oxborrow said. “We want to make sure everyone is aware that there’s a network of community partners in addition to what the U. is doing."
In a news release, the U. said it plans to tell more students about the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, which has a 24-hour call center with trained advocates, free legal services and a safe shelter all available for women with or without filing a police report. It calls that part of the project “saturating the U. campus with information.”
The school also intends to better assist students with getting protective orders when they need them. That is one of the things that police did not do, but Oxborrow believes they should have, in McCluskey’s case.
McCluskey, a 21-year-old track star, told officers on campus several times that she was being stalked, harassed and extorted by Melvin S. Rowland, a man she briefly dated. He later shot and killed her before dying by suicide. Police did little to investigate before that.
About two years before that, in December 2016, U. staff member Katherine Peralta was killed in a parking lot at the school by her husband after she told him she planned to file for divorce. Medical resident Sarah Hawley was shot to death by her boyfriend in their home this January. And MacKenzie Lueck, a 23-year-old kinesiology major at the university, was killed in June by a man with whom she had communicated on a dating app.
“The timing of this grant represents a moment when the wounds of [recent] fatal violence weigh heavy on the campus psyche, leaving us with a universal and overwhelming commitment to primary prevention,” said Sonia Salari, a family studies professor who will help guide the efforts.
The grant will be for three years. And the U. is one of 50 colleges in the nation — and the only in the state— to receive the money. Oxborrow said the idea behind it is to “not reinvent the wheel” and instead share resources through the community, in Salt Lake City and on campus.
The U. also spoke about its efforts to improve campus safety Wednesday during an interim meeting of the Legislature’s Education Committee. Jeff Herring, chief human resources officer on campus, said the school has finished 68 of 69 recommendations from an independent review team that investigated how police mishandled McCluskey’s case. (The last one, relocating the public safety building on campus, will take some time and require extra funding, he added.)
Overall, efforts have shifted to making sure students know who to call in an emergency, he said. Herring noted they’ve put up magnets at dorms with the police phone number and created the website safeu.utah.edu to list services for victims.
“It’s not the student’s obligation to find the resource,” he said.
All universities across the state submitted their campus safety plans last week — a new requirement that came out of the last legislative session, also prompted by McCluskey’s death.
The Utah System of Higher Education (USHE) presented an overview of those safety plans, which are mostly the same as the annual campus safety reports each school is required to create to comply with the federal Clery Act.
Additionally, the USHE Board of Regents plans to host a meeting on Jan. 24 to discuss the plans in more detail. “Snow College’s safety plans are going to look a lot different than the University of Utah’s,” said Spencer Jenkins, chief of staff to the board.
Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, sponsored the campus safety bill last spring and said the next step is improving how university police forces communicate with other law enforcement agencies. “It’s like you’re on a island and can’t look at records that go back and forth,” she said.
She’d like the dispatch systems and logs to be connected so both campus and city forces know if a student has reported multiple concerns. McCluskey twice reached out to Salt Lake City police when she was worried the U.’s department wasn’t moving quickly enough; both times, though, she was rerouted to campus.
Jenkins said some colleges in the state, particularly Utah State University in Logan, are already coordinating better with others.
The legislative meeting Thursday got a little heated toward the end when Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, suggested that LGBTQ couples and “same-sex relationships … take away that power dynamic” and don’t have the same challenges with domestic violence.
Jenkins quickly countered: “For all genders, regardless of sexual orientation, this is an issue. It’s about healthy relationships.”