‘This bill is in some sense written in blood’: Father of slain U. student urges legislators to pass campus safety proposal

(Bethany Rodgers | The Salt Lake Tribune) Matt McCluskey, father of slain University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey, speaks to reporters after testifying on a campus safety bill during a hearing before the House Education Committee on March 4, 2019. Standing next to him is the bill's sponsor, Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Salt Lake City.

Matt McCluskey’s testimony on SB134 Monday opened with a list of words describing his daughter Lauren, a University of Utah student who should’ve turned 22 in February.

Lauren McCluskey was poised, he said. Beautiful, kind and exemplary. Excited about the future and happy about her everyday life.

Then — as his Monday evening testimony on the campus safety bill continued — came the painful pivot to the events leading up to his daughter’s death at the hands of a man she’d briefly dated.

"This bill is in some sense written in blood," McCluskey told lawmakers on the House Education Committee.

Lauren had stopped dating Melvin Rowland when she realized he was a registered sex offender, McCluskey said, and later contacted campus police to report his harassment and extortion attempts. Her mother, Jill McCluskey, had also warned the school’s police that Lauren was in danger. Frustrated, Lauren reached out for help to Salt Lake City officers, who bounced her back to campus law enforcement.

On Oct. 22, the 21-year-old track athlete was killed outside her dorm by Rowland, who died hours later by suicide.

Her father, a Washington State University professor, said SB134, a bill sponsored by Sen. Jani Iwamoto, could remedy some of the “systemic failures” exposed by his daughter’s death.

The bill would require Utah’s public universities to craft campus safety plans laying out the rights of victims of sexual assault, stalking, dating violence or domestic violence. The plans would point victims toward resources and offer guidance on how to report crimes and request help from security personnel.

McCluskey said the legislation would also break down silos and call for improved communication between on-campus and off-campus organizations and agencies.

In Lauren’s case, two of her friends told staff at the school’s dorms that Rowland talked about bringing a gun to campus. Housing employees did not pass on the information to university police. In addition, campus police never reached out to the Department of Corrections, which knew that Rowland was on parole and some of the allegations could have violated his terms of release.

In those examples, Iwamoto, D-Holladay, has noted, having conversations could have helped save Lauren’s life.

The University of Utah has previously said the bill “ties in nicely with what we’re trying to do” to improve. The independent review team that examined the school’s shortcomings in Lauren McCluskey’s case provided a list of 30 fixes, and the university has begun putting those in place. They include having the police department hire more officers and a victim advocate; develop a working relationship with existing victim advocates elsewhere on campus; and train all police staff about interpersonal violence issues.

Law enforcement agencies have made strides in taking a victim-centered, trauma-informed approach to handling crimes of sexual assault, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown told lawmakers Monday.

But he acknowledged that the system has often failed victims of sexual assault, dating violence or stalking.

"We've got to do better," he said, declaring his support for Iwamoto's legislation.

At the end of the emotional hearing, the House committee gave a unanimous stamp of approval to Iwamoto’s bill and passed it the House floor. The bill has already cleared the Senate by a unanimous vote.

Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, who made the motion to advance SB134, said McCluskey’s testimony had “pierced us in our heart” and vowed to “make things right” for Utah’s college students. Minutes earlier, McCluskey had wrapped up his address to the House panel by imploring them not to forget about his daughter and her story.

“Jill and I really only have one request, and it is a simple one,” McCluskey said, his voice cracking with emotion. “Remember Lauren Jennifer McCluskey. ... Remember how she lived. Remember how she died. And through your actions, honor her memory.”

Iwamoto assured him that, because of Lauren, there would be change in Utah.

“I just want his [McCluskey’s] family to know that. That she’s at the heart and that she will always be remembered,” Iwamoto said.