Commentary: We must not be victimized by the silence of the culture

(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.

Lauren McCluskey was killed on Oct. 22 by an ex-boyfriend who harassed her for weeks before murdering her. It’s time now for a reckoning, both on the domestic violence epidemic in Utah and the ways law enforcement failed to protect this student. We have to have an honest conversation about what will change — it cannot be what “can” or “should” change, but what will. Our state’s future depends on it.

The day of Lauren’s death, I arrived in Seattle to recruit for the University of Utah. I spent that night reassuring terrified high school students that their siblings would be OK, advising freshmen students to stay inside until we got more information, trying to keep my tone steady. I listened to quiet sobs of older students who had lived this nightmare just one year earlier, hiding in darkened rooms, remembering when a man who killed their classmate had fled into the darkness of the foothills.

Every day since, I’ve visited high schools in Washington. Even on the other side of the state, five hours and 300 miles from Lauren’s home of Pullman, the shadow of her death is everywhere. I never bring it up, but it usually comes out. Students have a sister who knew her friends, a cousin who knew her roommate, a friend whose boyfriend was in her class, an aunt who knows her mother. Some students unapologetically ask the tough questions — “Why did this happen? What are you going to do to make sure it doesn’t happen to me?” Some don’t comment on it at all, but I hear it in the sympathetic way they say “University of Utah.” Most tell me it’s OK, it can happen anywhere, reassuring themselves as much as me.

Yes, it can happen anywhere, but it happened to us. Now, we have to do something.

The onus should not always be on the victim to beg for help in an unsafe situation. Maybe Lauren didn’t believe her life was in danger, but that didn’t make it so. There were multiple red flags, opportunities to intervene, actions by Melvin Rowland that should have resulted in some kind of reaction.

Instead, Lauren endured two terrifying weeks, and now she is gone. That will never change. What we can do is move forward with a clear message: Domestic violence took Lauren from our community and the people who loved her. We will not let her death be in vain.

When it comes to campus police, perception is reality. Procedure and protocol aside, the perception is Lauren tried to ask for help, and the people who were supposed to protect her didn’t do their jobs. We need to work from that reality, and we need to come to accept that if following protocol allowed a student to be killed, then the protocol is broken. Leadership must be held accountable, and procedure must be changed.

We cannot allow people in our community to be continually victimized by the silence of our culture and the inadequacy of our resources. I love the University of Utah with everything in my heart. When you love something, you want the best for it. I want the U to move forward from this tragedy with real healing on campus, and demonstrate to future students that we take their safety seriously. I want the U not to shrink under the daunting specter of campus violence that is a problem across our nation, but to take this opportunity to lead.

I want the best for the University of Utah. That means an honest, painful reckoning, and a bold, meaningful path forward.

Madalena McNeil

Madalena McNeil has worked at the University of Utah since June 2015. She is also a community organizer and youth mentor.