This Utah college saw a record high number of stalking cases last year

The University of Utah saw more cases of stalking than any other college in Utah for 2021, according to annual Clery reports.

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hundreds of students gather at the University of Utah during a vigil for Lauren McCluskey on Wed., Oct. 24, 2018. On Oct. 22, 2018, McCluskey was killed on campus after she was stalked and extorted by a man she briefly dated. The school has seen reports of stalking increase in recent years, with a peak in 2021.

Editor’s note: This story discusses sexual violence. If you need assistance or resources, Utah’s 24-hour sexual violence crisis and information hotline is available at 1-888-421-1100.

More than half of the stalking cases reported at colleges across the state last year happened at the University of Utah.

Recently released data shows a total of 130 cases of stalking across the 10 public and private universities in the state for 2021. The U. accounted for 73 of those, according to crime statistics that colleges nationwide are required by the federal Clery Act to compile and release annually.

While the U. has continually seen the largest share of the cases, it has never singlehandedly accounted for more than 50% of the cases before — even in 2019, when the total stalking reports across Utah colleges passed 100 for the first time with 146. This year also marks the second time Utah colleges topped 100 reported cases.

Victim advocates and university officials say they believe the numbers at the U. are starting to accurately reflect a true accounting of the crime as more students come forward to report, and as stalking is taken more seriously. More reporting is generally seen as a positive step.

“I hope that it is also a sign that students’ trust in the campus police is increasing,” said Jill McCluskey, mother of Lauren McCluskey, who was killed outside her dorm at the U. in October 2018 after being stalked and extorted by a man she had briefly dated.

“This trust was severely damaged in the aftermath of Lauren’s murder,” she added.

The U. had more stalking cases reported on its campus alone in 2021 than all 10 universities and colleges in the state had combined for 2020. That year, more students were away from school, not living in the dorms and taking classes online because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Total, there were 67 cases then.

The U. still had the highest number that year, too, of any college in the state, with 28 reported cases in 2020.

The spike this year also surpasses the Salt Lake City school’s previous record in 2019, when 62 stalking cases were reported. That was the year after McCluskey’s death raised awareness of the crime.

Her case has continued to weigh on the conscience of those at the U., believes Alexandra Allen, a victim advocate for the Utah Crime Victims Legal Clinic. Allen says several other high-profile cases, including the domestic violence death of international student Zhifan Dong that happened earlier this year, have also likely prompted more women and men to come forward to report stalking, which is often a first warning sign of escalating violence.

The U., she said, has taken steps to acknowledge the risk, identify cases, investigate them and intervene responsibly. Allen has worked with several students at the U. in the last year who have reported stalking.

“You can tell the officers and the advocates involved really do care and believe the victim,” she said. “And that goes really far.”

Jill McCluskey said — and a U. spokesperson confirmed — that 94% of the school’s police force has been hired since Lauren McCluskey’s death four years ago, and that has helped shift the culture in the department.

Interim Police Chief Jason Hinojosa said in a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune that the department has also partnered with many offices across campus to increase trainings about what stalking and domestic violence look like. Faculty and students have participated in those, and it has helped “bring informational and support resources to the forefront,” Hinojosa said.

Allen said part of the effort, including across all universities statewide, has been to change the perception that stalking has had in the past, where people have joked about it or flippantly said things like, “Oh, he just really likes you,” or, “She just really likes you.”

“Even five years ago, it wasn’t seen as serious,” Allen said. “But now we’re identifying it as a crime and not an appropriate way to act. And this is, in part, because of the things our state has gone through, the cases we’ve seen.”

(Courtesy images) Lauren McCluskey, left, and Zhifan Dong. Both women were killed while they were attending the U., and victim advocates say they believe the deaths have created more awareness about stalking and dating violence.

Stalking can be harder to define than intimate partner or dating violence, Allen said. But she believes it is similar to other relationship crimes because of the dynamic of one person having power over another — such as showing up at a workplace uninvited, taking pictures without consent or sending continued messages despite requests to stop.

Many victims may see the behavior as annoying at first, she said, but it can quickly escalate, including to an assault. Some victims, she said, have gone on just one date with a person before that individual began stalking them. Sometimes a perpetrator is a former boyfriend, girlfriend or partner.

Right now, Utah’s statutory definition of stalking is one of the strongest in the country for protecting victims, she said. A victim has to have experienced two or more incidents, directed at them by a perpetrator, that induced fear or caused emotional distress, in order to qualify for an injunction or possibly have charges filed against their assailant.

Allen believes more campus police agencies understand that definition of the crime now and are applying it accurately.

Two other colleges in the state saw record numbers last year for reported stalking cases — though not as high as the U.’s count. Utah Tech University in St. George had 14 cases; for the four years before that, it had only two combined.

And Utah State University in Logan had 18 stalking cases in 2021. It previously documented 13 cases in 2019.

Utah Tech’s interim Police Chief Ron Bridge said in a statement that he believes the spike there can be attributed, at least in part, to the campus opening more dorms for students, welcoming hundreds more to live on campus.

“This certainly had an impact on calls for service campuswide,” he said.

Campus housing does make a difference in the number of crime reports.

The U. tends to have the most stalking reports, even as the school does not have the largest student body in the state. But it does have roughly 5,000 of its 34,000 enrolled students living on campus. Seven cases of stalking stemmed from the residence halls there.

The school also has a large hospital on campus, and if any crimes occur there, they are counted as part of the annual crime logs released every October.

Meanwhile, Utah Valley University, which has the biggest student population at 41,000 students, had one reported case of stalking last year. But UVU does not have school-operated dorms.

At Utah State, eight of the 18 reported stalking cases (which includes multiple campuses statewide), also allegedly happened in dorms. The school’s spokesperson, Amanda DeRito, said USU has been working to increase awareness of stalking, how to recognize it and where to report it.

“We believe that students, faculty and staff are much more aware of potential stalking behaviors and are reporting it at an increased rate out of an abundance of caution, which is our goal,” she said.

With more reporting, she said, the campus is able to connect students to resources. Bridge said Utah Tech has done similar PSAs to get students to come forward, if they feel comfortable doing so.

Only one school in the state, Westminster College in Salt Lake City — the smallest of the 10 colleges in Utah with 1,600 students — reported zero cases of stalking last year.