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University of Utah students reject adding a campus police office to the student Union building

(Courtney Tanner | The Salt Lake Tribune) Joy Kavapalu speaks out against a proposal to add a police satellite office to the University of Utah’s Union.

For more than two hours, they lined up to speak, passing the microphone around the packed university classroom where every seat was filled and more squeezed in to sit cross-legged on the floor.

Most who came were students of color. A few identified as LGBTQ. Some said they are survivors of sexual assault.

And, when it was their turn, nearly every one suggested the same thing: The communities they come from — the most marginalized on campus and the most vulnerable — would be the most impacted if a police satellite office were put in the student Union building here at the University of Utah.

“This is supposed to be our safe space,” pleaded senior Puneet Singh. “I will not go to the Union any more if cops are there.”

The controversial proposal came from a U. student government leader, who suggested designating $30,000 to open the extra police office as the senior gift from the 2020 graduating class. Since student-athlete Lauren McCluskey was murdered on campus in October 2018, many have been critical of campus police. And Vice President Gabe Martinez argued the project could help rebuild that relationship overall.

More than 70 others joined Singh in speaking out against it Thursday night before the student senate unanimously voted against moving forward with the plan.

“We don’t trust the police,” Singh said, waving a blue poster from the back of the room. His sign included McCluskey’s name next to the phrase “inept cops.”

He added that McCluskey never had trouble contacting campus police or finding their current office. The problem was that officers didn’t take her concerns seriously. “Their presence does not guarantee safety.”

McCluskey, a 21-year-old student-athlete, had reached out to the U.’s police department several times, saying that the man she had been dating was stalking and extorting her. She later went to the department to formally report the harassment and was told to fill out a victim statement in the public lobby of the station.

Police did little to investigate her concerns. And, days later, she was killed outside her dorm by Melvin S. Rowland. He later died by suicide.

In the year and a half since, more students and staff have come forward to share their stories of being ignored or mistreated when reporting crimes on campus, including cases of rape, stalking, sexual harassment and dating violence. And many say they’re skeptical of asking the department for help.

“They didn’t do s--- for Lauren McCluskey,” said student Christina Souknarong.

Xavier Colon, who identified as a survivor of intimate partner abuse, added: “This campus is still grieving. We should have been able to put this to rest long ago. But because of the actions of the university and the administration, which said they couldn’t have done anything to prevent this, we haven’t healed.”

The U.'s new police chief, Rodney Chatman, was scheduled to attend the meeting Thursday, according to students, but ultimately had a scheduling conflict.

Martinez said his intent was to put police closer to students so officers could protect them if an attack or shooting happened on campus. He also wanted them to have better access to victim advocates. He hoped it would repair that damage.

“Upon searching for and understanding what the class and students really want, an investment in safety always rose back to the top,” he said.

And the proposal wouldn’t take place for five or six years — when the university plans to rebuild the student union.

But that space, specifically, is full of clubs and organizations for minorities, students countered Thursday, including the Women’s Resource Center, the LGBT Resource Center and the Center for Ethnic Student Affairs. And those groups are more likely to be discriminated against or treated unfairly by police, they said.

“Increased police presence will negatively impact and distress marginalized students,” said Ermiya Fanaeian, a transgender woman and student of color. “Police have a long and dark history of unjustly policing people of color, queer people, undocumented people and women who are survivors of sexual violence.”

She choked back her frustration. “We can’t put this here. It’s not the place.”

Fanaeian was a representative in the student Assembly, which voted 19-9 to pass the resolution Tuesday before sending it to the student Senate. She resigned from her position after the meeting, she said, after she felt silenced.

Several said that’s how the university treats students of color — putting their faces on posters but ignoring their concerns.

“This is all a big f--- you to students,” said Joy Kavapalu. “This institution continues to push students of color to the wayside.”

Martinez, who identifies as Mexican American, said he understands the minority perspective and talked to about 100 students who liked the idea. He stood at the front of the room, though, Thursday as student after student spoke against it. And later, he apologized — promising to come up with a new proposal.

Some, including Souknarong, suggested using the senior gift money instead for counseling to deal with the trauma from McCluskey’s killing, with several students noting they heard the gunshots from their dorm rooms. Others wondered about putting a satellite police office in a less controversial space, such as the nearby library or “somewhere less encroaching.”

A few questioned why the space was needed at all, since the university has approved construction for a new $13 million headquarters for campus police. “If they’re getting that facility, why aren’t we focused on accountability there?” asked Daniel Johnson.

The treasurer of the African Student Association raised concerns. One of McCluskey’s track teammates grabbed the microphone. Several survivors of assault cried as they talked about their experiences with police, including on campus.

“This is tone deaf,” said Michaela Lemen. “They have marred the educational opportunities of many students, including myself.”

Ted Camper, a senior who identified as gay, said it was an insult. His voice shook as he talked. “You guys should be ashamed. I don’t tell anyone to come here because I’m ashamed of how the university has handled all of this.”

The lineup of comments continued until just after 9 p.m. After two hours of hearing from students, the senators debated only briefly — about two minutes — before voting it down.

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