Despite renewed criticism from the mother of slain student Lauren McCluskey, the University of Utah sticks to its plan for improving safety — without discipline

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Photos of Lauren McCluskey on display as It's On Us Utah hosts a celebration of McCluskey's life at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Friday Oct. 26, 2018.

In a new commentary, the mother of slain University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey said the school mishandled her daughter’s case — and has failed to hold anyone accountable for its failure to respond with urgency to the track athlete’s concerns.

But the top trustee at the university and a former police chief on a team that reviewed the university’s actions indicated Wednesday that there are no plans to change course or to discipline anyone.

Jill McCluskey’s opinion piece was published Wednesday in The Salt Lake Tribune. In it, she recounted the several times Lauren McCluskey reached out to campus police to tell them about Melvin S. Rowland, a man she had briefly dated who harassed and extorted $1,000 from her after she ended their relationship. Rowland fatally shot Lauren McCluskey on Oct. 22 — less than two weeks after she first reported her concerns to officers — outside her dorm; he later died by suicide.

Even the “most charitable interpretation” of events concludes that the university’s safety system was “dangerously flawed,” she wrote.

“The University of Utah has neither acknowledged responsibility nor held anyone at the university accountable,” Jill McCluskey wrote. “Remarkably, the university’s position is that there is no reason to believe that her death could have been prevented. If that were true, then fixing the flaws in the system would be pointless.”

“My husband and I strongly reject the university’s position,” Jill McCluskey went on, “as we believe any reasonable person would, given the numerous and escalating concerns that were explicitly provided to the campus police, Salt Lake City police, university counselors and [Housing and Residential Education] staff.”

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune University of Utah President Ruth V. Watkins announced the university has launched an independent review team, Friday, Nov. 2, 2018, that will conduct two in-depth reviews, one on police response to Lauren McCluskey case and the other on campus safety. Watkins was flanked by two of three review team members; senior vice president for government and industry relations at ANDE, Keith D. Squires, left, and retired attorney John T. Nielsen, right. Both men were former commissioners of the Utah Department of Public Safety. Sue Riseling, executive director of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators did not attend the press conference.

Part of her commentary was a response to the independent report the university commissioned on what officers and others did, and did not do, before the murder. That includes housing officials not relaying concerns to campus police from Lauren McCluskey’s roommates, who worried that she was in a dangerous relationship. The review found: “In the final analysis we will never know that this tragedy could have been prevented without these deficiencies.”

On the day the report was released, though, university President Ruth Watkins was more resolute. She said at a news conference, “The report does not offer any reason to believe that this tragedy could have been prevented.”

H. David Burton, chairman of the University of Utah’s board of trustees, read the commentary Wednesday and said the school will continue on its course of implementing recommendations from the independent review. He said he’s not sure if he agrees with Jill McCluskey’s conclusion that the university could have done something to prevent Lauren McCluskey, a senior communications major and heptathlete, from dying.

“It’s hard to say,” he said. “It’s a perfect storm that really occurred. There are a lot of situations that in retrospect, that in reviewing the timeline, things could have been different.”

Rowland was a registered sex offender and on parole, and some of Lauren McCluskey’s allegations could have led to his arrest for violations of the terms of his release. But the report said campus police never determined that Rowland was a parolee. They were not trained to check for a suspect’s parole status; they didn’t see the case as potentially involving intimate partner violence; they waited days before opening a formal case, and even then, no one was investigating in the days before the murder.

Burton added that he reaffirms his support for the university and its administration and said there are no plans — as Jill McCluskey called for — for anyone to be disciplined or fired. The solution, he said, is to put in place the fixes recommended to improve campus security, such as hiring more officers and a victim advocate and training all police staff about interpersonal violence issues.

“We need to do better,” Burton said. “I hope that Lauren’s life was not taken in vain and that we profit from what that tragic experience has been.”

The university also put out a statement Wednesday, saying that Watkins "has accepted the report’s findings and recommendations without reservation.”

But it includes a small change to Watkins’ assertion that there is “no reason to believe” anything could have been done differently to prevent the slaying.

The statement says: “Although the report concluded that there is no way to know for certain whether this tragic murder could have been prevented, it identified mistakes and weaknesses in university procedures and actions that handled differently, could have made a difference.”

The statement concludes by saying the school recognizes “the need for constant vigilance, and we welcome input from the McCluskeys and others.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sue Riseling speaks at a news conference presenting the findings of a review of the Lauren McCluskey case, in Salt Lake City on Wednesday Dec. 19, 2018.

Sue Riseling, the former police chief at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is now executive director of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, on Wednesday said part of the review team’s report has been misinterpreted.

The closing lines meant only to say that there’s no way to know if better policies and responses from campus police and other university staff could have prevented the murder, she said.

"The deficiencies had an impact on how Lauren's case was handled,” Riseling said in a telephone interview from her office in Silver Spring, Md., “to think otherwise is not accurate at all.

"Nowhere in our report are we saying this didn't add up,” she added. “It did add up and it ended in a way that turned out tragically."

Riseling, along with former Utah Department of Public Safety Commissioners John T. Nielsen and Keith Squires, are working on a second report examining broader questions of safety at the U.

Asked if she would discipline someone, or expect to be disciplined or fired if she were still a police chief on the Madison campus and Lauren McCluskey’s murder had happened there, Riseling replied: “I would have to say that there are so many systemic problems with this case. ... It really does make you wonder where did the people fail and where did the systems fail.

“The university needs to look at that and figure that out, and once they do that, then they can make that decision about accountability.”

Jill McCluskey wrote that beyond discipline, she hopes that her daughter’s case will be a catalyst for change at the University of Utah and colleges nationwide. She wants police departments to hire more women — the U. has three female officers out of 31 full-time officers, she said — and take cases of domestic violence seriously.