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Utah Colleges Looking To Improve Campus Safety, Taking Cues From The U

A photo of a sign that reads 'The University of Utah Founded February 28, 1850' in front of a snowy background with trees on either side.
Brian Albers
The murder of University of Utah student-athlete Lauren McCluskey has been a source of tremendous pain on campus, but it’s also helped bring about some much-needed reforms.

Nationally, 1 in 4 women experience some sort of sexual-related violence during their college careers. It’s a statistic that’s actually gotten worse since the late 1950s, when one of the first documented studies of sexual violence on college campuses found that 1 in 5 women experienced sexual violence of some kind.

The issue of sexual violence on college campuses has come into sharp focus over the last few years in Utah, particularly after the murder of University of Utah student-athlete Lauren McCluskey in 2018. And while the tragedy has been a source of tremendous pain, it’s also helped bring about some much-needed reforms, according to board members of the Utah System of Higher Education.

Those include hiring a chief safety officer and implementing a number of recommendations from an independent review following the murder. But the U has also continued to stumble in its efforts, facing several controversies with its police force and struggling to regain student trust.

A recent campus report also found that in 2019, reports of rape at the school rose almost 70% and stalking incidents more than doubled compared to the year before.

On Friday, USHE hosted a virtual campus safety panel to address the issue at the state’s 16 public colleges — the first of what they said will be several discussions on the topic.

University of Utah professor Chris Linder, who is also head of the newly-created McCluskey Center for Violence Prevention, said colleges focus on sexual violence in three ways: response, prevention and awareness. But they tend to put most of the effort into responding to events after they happen, rather than preventing them from happening in the first place.

“We get in trouble when we do a bad job responding. We don't necessarily get in trouble when it happens,” Linder said.

She said preventing violence starts with education and understanding, in particular, who is perpetrating it. Linder said 1 in 7 college men have committed acts that meet the legal definition of sexual assault.

“We've made perpetrators invisible,” she said. “We don't know who they are. And we like to believe they're not among us. But the reality is they’re people we have contact with every day.”

Linder said one of the major ways the U is educating students on campus violence is through tapping into existing campus groups, such as a major or club. Graduate students will help run semester-long courses, asking students what issues they see and helping them understand how to confront them.

The U is also working on improving its system for reporting incidents of violence or racism. Chief Safety Officer Marlon Lynch said the U has an online system to report events. They’re tracked and investigated and administrators then report back to the community what happened.

“What this does is it identifies some of the weaknesses and concerns that had been shared with us in regards to what happens when these types of incidents are reported,” Lynch said.

While other Utah schools may not have the resources that the U does, Lynch said they can adapt the process to make it work for them.

Linder said sexual violence has historically been a tool of oppression, so preventing it will not just make campuses safer, it will also help them become more equitable.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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