On the 3rd anniversary of Lauren McCluskey’s murder, her parents announce initiatives to prevent similar cases

Matt McCluskey, her dad, said: “We know nothing is going to bring Lauren back.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) On the three-year anniversary of Lauren McCluskey's murder, a memorial walk takes place with signs about dating violence and stalking lining the track at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 22, 2021.

On the third anniversary of her murder, Lauren McCluskey’s mom and dad stood on the paved red running track at the University of Utah where their daughter once competed and announced their efforts to try to prevent another death like hers.

Their expansive plans include creating a universal training program for campus police across the country on how to respond when students report dating violence and stalking, like Lauren did. And they’ll launch a nationwide scoring system for colleges, based on how safe their campuses are.

“We know nothing is going to bring Lauren back,” said her dad, Matt McCluskey, on Friday. “But it’s our hope that the steps we take can stop this from happening again in the future to someone else’s little girl.”

Their initiatives specifically target the spots where campus police at the U. failed their daughter.

Officers, for instance, did little to investigate Lauren’s report when she first tried to tell them that she was being extorted, according to a later independent review. She called several times after that to warn them about Melvin Rowland, a man she had briefly dated.

But detectives didn’t look into her concerns enough to find out that Rowland was on parole for a sex offense; what Lauren was reporting could have sent him back to jail for violating the terms of his release. And one officer showed off the personal photos she sent had him as evidence.

Jill McCluskey, Lauren’s mom, said creating a blueprint for officers on how to handle these cases will help ensure that victims are listened to and believed when they come forward. They will make trainings, too, for those in campus housing and counseling centers.

Lauren’s roommates had gone to housing officials at the U. to report their concerns about Rowland and that he had a gun. Those also were not pursued. Lauren was later killed outside her campus dorm on Oct. 22, 2018. Rowland fled before dying by suicide.

“We need a coordinated response across all groups,” Jill said.

The outline of Lauren’s dorm was visible Friday, just below the mountains that frame the track and field at the U. where her parents discussed their campus safety initiatives.

Jill and Matt took a memorial lap around the track, along with many of Lauren’s former teammates and her coach. Hurdles were set up every few meters with signs taped on them with statistics about domestic violence.

One read, “15% of all violent crime in Utah is partner violence.” Another said, “2% of domestic violence victims had a protective order at the time of their death.”

The parents say they have channeled their grief, as much as possible, into changing those numbers and addressing the “the monumental problems of dating violence and stalking” at college campuses throughout the United States.

Part of their efforts are about raising awareness. The family wants to designate Oct. 22 as National Dating Violence Day as a way to commemorate Lauren and draw attention to the issue.

They are also promoting “Lauren’s Promise.” This is a statement that university professors are asked to put in their course syllabi that they believe victims and will provide resources for those experiencing partner violence. Both Matt and Jill are also professors.

So far, staff at more than 150 colleges in the country have done so. And on Friday, those at the memorial event at the U. signed posters promising to uphold the pledge. U. President Taylor Randall also added his name and held it up as the McCluskeys spoke.

“There’s no parent that should have to go through what you went through. And I’m sorry,” he told them.

The U. first apologized for its responsibility in failing to respond to McCluskey’s concerns on the second anniversary of her death last year. At that time, the university signed a settlement agreement with the family, paying out $13.5 million to their charitable foundation to fund efforts like those they announced Friday.

“We fully support these initiatives,” Randall added. “Prevention of dating violence and stalking is one of our top priorities and an integral piece of campus safety for us.”

Randall, who was the dean of the Eccles School of Business before recently being named president, will incorporate some of his own economic modeling into the system for scoring colleges across the nation on campus safety.

It will be based on how well a school trains officers, provides resources and responds to reported crimes. Jill hopes it will help inform parents and students when they’re deciding where to go to college.

Randall said it will “shape a new campus culture.” He noted that he had kids on campus at the time of Lauren’s murder and understands the fear and pain that students felt. “And we realize we still have a long way to go” in addressing that, he added.

Tiffany Chan, the student vice president of the U., agreed, saying many women and minorities on campus still don’t feel safe. She called improvements to safety “long overdue.”

“Negligence and disregard have cost students their education, their well-being and even their lives,” she said.

The U. has had seven students and staff killed in the last five years: Katherine Peralta in 2016, ChenWei Guo in 2017, Lauren McCluskey in 2018, Sarah Hawley in 2019, MacKenzie Lueck in 2019, Ty Jordan in 2020 and Aaron Lowe this year.

Of those, three were athletes, with Jordan and Lowe being football players and McCluskey on track. And four died at the hands of a partner or former partner — Peralta, McCluskey, Hawley and Lueck.

Most of those gathered Friday wore black shirts with Lauren’s name on them. Some tied little purple ribbons into the red-leafed maple tree planted next to the track in her memory. And a few laid roses there.

It was a somber event but also a hopeful one — with the aim of making things better.

“We’re committed to taking specific steps to avoid the situation,” said Matt McCluskey.

As the last part of their five-step plan, the McCluskeys plan to lobby state and federal legislators to strengthen the laws on domestic violence — aiming to improve prosecution and protect victims. Two state senators joined them in support Friday.

Jill and Matt thanked everyone for their help as they looked toward the starting line of the track.