Devon Cantwell and Rebecca Hardenbrook: Utah bill would help ensure the safety of college students

SB163 would create a student-led board to review campus safety issues.

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) An image of University of Utah student and track athlete Lauren McCluskey, who was fatally shot on campus, is projected on the video board before the start of an NCAA college football game between Oregon and Utah on Nov. 10, 2018, in Salt Lake City. McCluskey's parents reached a $13.5 million settlement Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, with the University of Utah, which acknowledged that it didn't handle McCluskey's case properly.

Institutions of higher education within the state of Utah are facing a crisis in handling campus safety concerns.

The past year and a half of coverage on the murder of Lauren McCluskey has highlighted long-term issues with the culture of campus police and reporting at the University of Utah.

Utah State University has been found by the Department of Justice to have “mishandled cases of sexual assault on campus, failing to investigate when it knew about misconduct and, as a result, ‘rendered additional students vulnerable’.”

Although administrators have been more conscious of including student perspectives in addressing these issues in recent years, these efforts fall short as the task forces, committees and boards are still driven by administrators, not student, voices. Additionally, the decision-making powers of these bodies have been extremely limited, with most acting as advisory boards.

Students may also be hesitant to raise more serious issues to these existing groups for fear of retribution or that their complaints will not be taken seriously.

The key to addressing the issues surrounding student safety is simple: a statewide student-led commission. Senate Bill 163, sponsored by Utah state Sen. Jani Iwamoto this legislative session, would establish a Safety and Equity Commission, populated and led by students at Utah System of Higher Education institutions. The Safety and Equity Commission will be charged with reviewing safety and equity issues including: “an institution’s policies, procedures, and practices for addressing: crime; sexual harassment; sexual assault; campus safety; discrimination,” how institutions address “allegations of crime, sexual harassment, sexual assault, or discrimination at the institution” including Title IX investigations, reports to campus police, and discrimination complaints filed with institutions.

Following these reviews, the commission will be able to make recommendations for changes in institutional or legislative policy. Furthermore, the commission is able to help set the standard for excellence in this policy area through the powers it could hold to present awards and recognitions to institutions based on campus safety and equity commitments.

With a student-run commission, students will be more comfortable reporting misconduct and concerns for investigation and review. The Safety and Equity Commission would help identify patterns and trends within individual institutions, as well as statewide, early. The goal of this commission is to identify concerns early and provide guidance for systemic practices which could support victims and survivors better, as well as prevent violence from occurring in the first place. Having a commission composed of all USHE institutions, we would also be able to share information about policies that are working more efficiently.

The Safety and Equity Commission is also drafted to have one person with sexual assault expertise and one person with expertise in discrimination on the commission to ensure knowledge and best practices lead policy recommendations and reviews.

In addition to this statewide commission, this piece of legislation also requires that local law enforcement and campus law enforcement automatically share complaints or reports that are filed incorrectly with each other. Many students lack a clear understanding of where these jurisdiction boundaries lie. As a result, survivors of sexual assault or stalking can often be forced to file their reports or complaints multiple times. This legislation would reduce that burden on survivors and ensure the proper agency has information to investigate these concerns as soon as possible.

Finally, while institutions are required to report campus safety data through the Clery Act, that data is not disaggregated by building. SB163 would require campuses to report campus safety data by building, which would ensure students can make informed decisions about where they would like to live, work, take classes and socialize. Disaggregated data by building would quickly identify hot spots with issues like sexual assault and allow campuses to design more targeted interventions.

We ask residents in Utah to join us in voicing support for this legislation. If we want to get to the heart of campus safety issues, we must give students a central role in this process, have clear data, and reduce burden on survivors seeking assistance. SB163 allows us to chart a new path forward and provides an opportunity for USHE institutions to become nationwide leaders in campus safety.

Devon Cantwell

Rebecca Hardenbrook

Devon Cantwell and Rebecca Hardenbrook are graduate students at the University of Utah and members of UnsafeU, a group of student activists advocating for campus safety reforms at the university.

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