Utah Senate guts campus safety bill, eliminating student-led commission to study problems

SB163 was originally spurred by the deaths of Lauren McCluskey, ChenWei Guo and others in recent years.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) UnsafeU members Devon Cantwell, left, and Rebecca Hardenbrook, next, lead a march on Oct. 20, 2020, in Salt Lake City against the police at the University of Utah in this file photo. Cantwell and Hardenbrook are now part of a legislative effort pushing for a commission of students to review and recommend policy changes for campus safety in the state.

A bill seeking to improve safety at Utah’s colleges passed through the Senate on Tuesday — but not before it was gutted of a key effort to involve students in the conversation.

The measure, SB163, now no longer includes its biggest provision that would have created a commission of students to look at security on campus and make recommendations to the state on how to fix ongoing issues they see.

“This was something our students really wanted,” said Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay and the sponsor. “We were all excited about the positive impact of this.”

But after concerns were raised about the commission by several Republican members of the body — including accusations that the student group would be “too liberal” and shut out conservative voices — Iwamoto reluctantly agreed to remove that part to allow the rest of the bill to move forward before the session ends Friday.

The watered down measure, which passed 22-6, focuses largely on campus crime data and now moves to the House for a final vote.

Iwamoto said she was disappointed by the pushback to the commission, saying it was meant to let students for any college in the state come forward with their ideas for improving campus safety. There was nothing political about it, she added, and no lobbyists were involved in pushing for it.

That part of the bill, she noted, was drafted by local students who were spurred by ongoing worries after the on-campus murders of several of their classmates in recent years, including student-athlete Lauren McCluskey and international student ChenWei Guo.

“Our Utah students have endured unspeakable events and tragedies on campus,” Iwamoto said.

The measure, though — which Iwamoto has described as a simple, innocuous bill to address persisting issues — has faced hurdles since it was drafted.

It had been blocked from getting a hearing until this week, even though it was filed early in the 45-day session. Iwamoto said she was asked to make changes to the bill, including taking out any mention of the word “equity,” before the Senate’s Republican leadership would put it on the schedule.

It then passed in committee on Monday, after narrowly sidestepping another effort to table it there.

“This is a very important bill,” Iwamoto had told the committee. “We’ve worked on it for months. The students across the state do support this.”

Devon Cantwell, a graduate student at the University of Utah and one of the authors of the bill, urged lawmakers to support it: “For students to feel safe on their campus, we must feel like our input is being heard and action is being taken from that input.”

Cantwell has been part of the leadership of Unsafe U, a student group at the University of Utah that formed in the aftermath of McCluskey’s 2018 murder and has been focused on addressing the concerns with campus police. She said she saw the commission as a place to have discussions about ongoing issues ranging from an increase in stalking to groping cases on campuses to policies for police on handling evidence (which was a major issue in McCluskey’s case).

The Higher Education Student Safety Commission would have been a first-of-its-kind body of students to look at security at campuses across the state. The hope was to have one representative from each of the eight public universities in Utah, as well as each of the eight technical colleges.

The group would have been housed under the Utah System of Higher Education, which oversees all the public schools in the state and supported the measure.

Iwamoto said she hopes to bring it back next year. In the meantime, the board for the higher education system intends to look at other ways to include more student input on campus safety.

The remainder of SB163 includes some smaller requirements for colleges to share more data about crimes.

Each year, colleges are required to release a report that totals the crimes that occurred on or near campus. But they don’t have to specify where they occurred. Iwamoto would like the state’s colleges to provide a live dashboard or map going forward that includes a breakdown of the locations.

She believes that would give students insight into what’s happening on their campuses. They could look up, for instance, the number of crimes in a particular dorm building or parking lot.

“It would help students make choices that would make them feel safer on campus,” added Rebecca Hardenbrook, also a graduate student at the U. who helped draft the bill, during the committee meeting. “They could see the hot spots of crime. It’s about transparency.”

The bill would require, too, that college police departments communicate with their nearby city police departments and share data.