A few months after her daughter was murdered on campus, Jill McCluskey spoke out for the first time — blaming the University of Utah and charging its police department with an “unforgivable lapse of judgment.”
On Thursday, nearly five years after Lauren McCluskey’s death, she said the loss will always hurt, but seeing the improvements at the school to better support victims has helped her as she continues to mourn.
“It means so much to me,” she said. “This actually helps me in my grief to see the changes here.”
The university still has flaws to correct, Jill McCluskey said. She pointed to the February 2022 death of international U. student Zhifan Dong, whose domestic violence case was mishandled in ways that mirrored some of the mistakes made in responding to her daughter’s concerns, particularly with the lack of action by campus housing officials.
“The housing team again failed with Zhifan,” she said.
And she cautioned that students continue to struggle with trusting the school’s police officers.
“With all that you’re doing, there is still a challenge,” she said. Then McCluskey paused and added: “But I trust you now.”
It was a hopeful sentiment that came during the U.’s first campus safety conference. The daylong event featured prominent speakers from within the university and from other campus police departments in the state, who came together to talk about ways to protect young students. McCluskey was the keynote, and much of the program echoed her tone and looked at finding ways to continue improving, particularly with relationship violence.
McCluskey said it is an issue that needs to be addressed — widely and responsibly.
“Before we lost Lauren, I didn’t know about the seriousness myself,” she said.
Lauren McCluskey, a 21-year-old track athlete, was killed in October 2018 outside her dorm room by Melvin Rowland, a man she had briefly dated. She had gone to campus police several times to report her concerns about Rowland extorting her, and she and her friends told housing officials about her concerns. Lauren even twice reported to Salt Lake City police when she didn’t hear back from U. officers.
But her reports were largely ignored, a later independent study confirmed.
On Thursday, Jill McCluskey recounted those events in stark detail. “She met him in September. He killed her in October,” she said about Rowland. And she spoke, too, about the final moments of her daughter’s life, when Lauren was walking home from class and telling her mom about projects she was excited to pursue. Lauren screamed, “no, no, no” before dropping the phone, Jill McCluskey said, and Rowland shot her.
“I want to tell Lauren’s story so people think of that when they’re interacting with victims,” she told a room packed with more than 100 officers and university officials, with a line of media cameras against the back wall. Pictures from her presentation projected on a screen showed Lauren holding a cat, jumping over track hurdles and sitting behind a local TV news desk while she shadowed an anchor.
Keith Squires, who was a member of the independent review team that looked at the mistakes the university made in responding to Lauren’s concerns, has since been hired by the U. as the chief safety officer to lead efforts to change policing in the wake of the tragedy. He started the conference by acknowledging both Lauren and Dong’s murders.
We’re “acknowledging what could have been done better,” he said.
The school, he added, has “learned from these experiences” and also has “a lot to do ahead of us.” On Thursday — at the same time as the conference — state lawmakers approved the university’s settlement agreement with Dong’s family, granting her parents $5 million for their loss.
Squires highlighted hiring new policing staff and opening a new public safety building on campus, but he didn’t specifically comment on the repetition of mistakes made in Dong’s case, which came more than three years after Lauren’s murder. He noted only: “We will keep moving forward with purpose.”
Dong, who was 19 when she died, spoke to U. housing staff several times, alleging that her ex-boyfriend Haoyu Wang had had hit her after she broke up with him and reporting that she was scared about what he would do next. Campus police were not called, though, until almost a month after her first report; she died three days after that.
Wang has been charged with injecting drugs into Dong at a downtown Salt Lake City hotel. He is currently in jail and has so far been declared incompetent to stand trial.
In her address, Jill McCluskey outlined a series of fixes — some that have already been implemented and others she believes could stand to be strengthened — in responding to students reporting interpersonal violence.
She particularly wants the U. to continue breaking down silos that exist between departments, where information is not shared, which happened with both Lauren and Dong.
“I’m not being critical here,” McCluskey said. “But housing didn’t communicate with police. Security and police didn’t talk. Police jurisdictions didn’t talk. There was no communication with counseling and police.”
She also pushed for campus police departments to respond in a timely matter to victims, and if a police officer or detective has a scheduled day off, to have a system where there is appointed backup to continue responding to a case. And she wants officers to use what is called a lethality assessment program, or LAP, to assess the risk a victim of domestic violence is in when reporting to police. A bill currently being debated this legislative session would require police departments in Utah to do that.
Officers should believe women, and departments should cultivate a culture where that is the standard, McCluskey said. There should be victim advocates, too, for any student who could use that service. And she wants victims to have the right to ban someone from campus when an individual is harassing or threatening them.
She has faced threats, herself, where she works at Washington State University, with people attacking her about Lauren’s case and victim-blaming, she said. She has called campus police there several times for help.
McCluskey wants to launch a program with U.S. News and World Report that would rank each college in the country on their public safety efforts — like the news organization currently does on academics. That would give prospective students insight, she said, to how safe they might be on a campus. And it would prompt schools, she believes, to take the issues more seriously.
Each college would be ranked on their police policies, response times, trainings and access to victims advocates.
McCluskey applauded the U. setting aside soft interview rooms to talk to victims in a calming environment in its new police building. And she is glad to hear that most of the officers in the department are new and have undergone intensive training on responding to trauma and partner violence. She ranks the department higher than she would have years ago.
“I see so much sincerity and authenticity and willingness to make change,” she said. “From this, we must all take action.”