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University Of Utah Safety Concerns Persist A Year After Track Star Lauren McCluskey's Murder

Photo of University of Utah students holding signs at a rally
Cami Mondeaux
University of Utah students demanded improved safety at a Monday campus rally. The rally was held on the eve of the October 2018 murder of student athlete Lauren McCluskey.

A group of University of Utah students said they are still not feeling any safer on campus, despite the institution’s ongoing work to add or improve security measures in reaction to last year’s murder of track star Lauren McCluskey. 

A coalition of concerned university students calling themselves UnsafeU held a rally on campus Monday. It was on the eve of the one-year anniversary of McCluskey’s death. She was killed on campus on Oct. 22, 2018, by a man she briefly dated. 

The group is critical of the 30 safety recommendations the university has worked on since McCluskey’s death. Those recommendations include increased resources and training for the campus police department. The students say the recommendations don’t go far enough and have presented university administrators with their own safety demands centered on the need for accountability, transparency and resources. 

Dan Reed, senior vice president for academic affairs, and Lori McDonald, vice president for Student Affairs, said in a Monday statementthere are three safety suggestions by students that could be implemented quickly. They include: creating a campus safety oversight board, a student advisory committee and a safety data dashboard. 

McCluskey’s mom, Jill, said she and her husband Matt weren’t able to attend the rally because they wanted to stay at home to mourn, but said they admired the students’ work. 

“The students are truly changing their campus, as well as the world,” Jill McCluskey said. “This is a movement that is positively affecting campuses everywhere.”

'Security theatre'

Photo of University of Utah students making posters.
Credit Cami Mondeaux / KUER
University of Utah students make posters for a Monday rally where they spoke out about their campus safety concerns. Students cited examples of when they felt school administrators and campus police failed to protect them.

However, students who attended the rally said despite all the added security measures, they still feel unsafe. 

“I’ve been on campus, often working late when a lot of the incidents happened,” said Jerry Black, a U of U senior. “I think every single year there’s been a shooting on or near campus and it’s, you know, not fun.” 

University police spokesman Lt. Jason Hinojosa was at the protest and heard the students’ concerns firsthand. 

He couldn’t talk about individual cases but said he understood their concerns and invited them to come in and talk to the department. 

“If any one of them are willing to come in and speak to us about it and be willing to have a dialogue with us about what we need to do moving forward, I’m happy to have that dialogue,” Hinojosa said. 

The police department has made some improvements, including hiring an investigator who specializes in interpersonal violence, Hinojosa said. It’s also hired a victim advocate and added training for officers to spot lethal threats before tragedies happen. The hope is that these changes will improve the department’s accountability moving forward, Hinojosa said. 

“There should be no excuse for a case sitting, a poor report. It’s just not going to be acceptable,” he said. 

But students are critical of just how far the university’s safety improvements really go, calling them “security theatre.”

“I feel that the U is not truly listening to student concerns, they’re only rubber stamping us and that their safety is just a media campaign,” said student Moira Gray. “It’s not institutional-level change.” 

Michele Ballantyne is the university’s associate general counsel and serves on its safety taskforce. She pushed back against this idea and said President Ruth Watkins and the university are deeply committed to improving campus safety. 

“I know there are a lot of people who have a lot of different views about what it means to have a safe campus,” Ballentyne said. “I can tell you we want to hear all of those views ... and we want to do everything to make this campus as safe as it possibly can be.”

Changes going forward

Photo of a University of Utah patrol car
Credit Rocio Hernandez / KUER
The University of Utah's police department has been heavily criticized since the October 2018 murder of student Lauren McCluskey. Lt. Jason Hinojosa says the department has been working on improvements since.

The safety task force has suggested creating a chief of security position at the U. That person would oversee the University Police Department and its new police chief. Former Police Chief Dale Brophy resigned from the role Oct. 15. 

The police department, which is currently made up of 40 sworn officers, is also looking to hire an additional seven officers. Lt. Hinojosa said he’s optimistic about all the changes happening at the department. 

“With the new process that have come in, with the new people that have come in, with the experiences they brought, I can see a much improved police department in the months and years to come,” Hinojosa said. 

The university expects to have a new police chief and security chief identified by the end of the year.

Correction 5:24 p.m. MDT 10/22/19: This story has been corrected to fix the spelling of student Moira Gray's name.

Rocio is coming to KUER after spending most of her life under the blistering Las Vegas sun and later Phoenix. She earned bachelor’s degrees in journalism and Spanish at the University of Nevada, Reno. She did brief stints at The Associated Press, the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Reno Public Radio. She enjoys wandering through life with her husband and their toy poodle.
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