SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 News) – In recent years, the University of Utah has been under pressure to improve campus safety following the murder of student-athlete Lauren McCluskey. With back-to-school next week, what are the campus initiatives, and are they keeping the U community safe?
Following McCluskey’s 2018 murder on-campus, an investigation led to an Independent Review Committee (IRC) handing down 30 recommendations. As of Wednesday, 17 of those are complete and available to view online.
Some of their completed initiatives include the hiring of a victim advocate, requiring first responders to be trained on domestic violence indicators, and expediting information in cases involving interpersonal violence.
“We can always do better; we can always look for ways to improve those processes and strengthen relationships and that’s something that will be an ongoing effort forever,” said Annalisa Purser, the Director of Administration for university safety. “But we can’t let the past get away from us and we have to remember and learn from that and try to make things better for the future.”
The ongoing efforts include bringing awareness, transparency, and accountability to the campus.
“One of the things we’ve been very focused on is rebuilding trust with the campus community and increasing transparency is an important part of that,” Purser said.
“Things do happen on campus, and when they do happen, we want to be prepared to address those, to seek justice for our victims and our survivors, and then to continuously think about how we can improve campus safety,” said Jason Hinojosa, the acting police chief at the U.
Safety concerns on campus
It’s not just school officials who are concerned about safety. An organization called Unsafe U, is a student watchdog group committed to raising awareness about safety issues.
“Administrators at the U broadly consider the 30 recommendations made by the ‘Independent’ Review Committee in Lauren’s case to be sufficient in addressing the issue that led to her murder,” the organization’s spokesperson wrote. “We have been quite clear for the last two years that those 30 recommendations are things that should have been put in place long before Lauren’s murder and are the floor, not the ceiling, in ensuring something like this never happens again. Factually, objectively, the U has made work to implement the recommendations that they were given. We don’t believe that this is enough to actually make the U safer, especially given the high and rising rates of gender-based violence in the state of Utah.”
Unsafe U and campus safety officials said everyone has a different definition of safety and criteria for what makes it safe.
“There is that intangible, do I feel safe on campus?” said Amos Guiora, the chair of the IRC and a professor of law at the U. “And I think it’s important to be aware of that.”
“We know that many women and BIPOC students, in particular, feel less safe on campus compared to the student body as a whole based on campus climate data and based on anecdotal accounts reported to our account,” the Unsafe U spokesperson wrote. “Many of the feelings that campus is unsafe stem from a lack of resources to prevent violence – especially gender-based violence and racism – as well as failure to hold perpetrators accountable.”
“We have to have those conversations and we have to be open to changing things and trying new things and it is a work that will never be done, cause there’s no one definition of what that looks like,” Purser said.
Crime/violence threatens campus safety
Crime and violence can happen on any college campus; however, national data suggests it varies by school and community.
Data provided by the U to the U.S. Department of Education finds from 2017 to 2019, 271 crimes were reported on-campus; this also includes two on-campus hospitals.
What’s being done to protect the U of U community?
All criminal acts are a threat to campus safety. What are some of the checks and balances being put into place to ensure safety for everyone?
“We’re also working on implementing a new system to track the way we manage law enforcement on campus, and so we’re looking at being able to, in the coming years, to provide information about crimes on-campus, around demographic information,” Purser said.
“The speed in which complaints are addressed. Is there a backlog is there a lagging or is it responded to quickly?” Guiora said. “When the Independent Review Committee receives complaints, material from the police, campus security office, do we act quickly? Or do we sit on it?”
Guiora said he’s open to his committee being tested, checked, and monitored. ABC4 asked the Unsafe U spokesperson about the IRC’s efforts.
“The IRC has only been around for a part of one year at this point. They have not transparently or publicly released any of their findings up to this point,” the spokesperson said. “Their policies and procedures call for an annual report to be issued which would detail recommended changes to policies or procedures, but we have not yet seen the publishing of the inaugural annual report for the IRC.”
The organization also said the IRC only has jurisdiction to investigate issues within the Department of Public Safety.
“Issues with Title IX, Dean of Students, and other campus entities that also play critical roles in student safety do not have an independent review body to investigate issues,” they wrote. “Some of the more alarming issues we have learned about through submissions to our account have actually not been in DPS, but in these other offices.”
While efforts to increase campus safety will always be necessary, university officials said everyone is trying to work together.
“This campus has so many people, and they’re intersecting lives in different ways, and we have to be able to work together with public safety, student affairs, facilities colleagues; everybody is going to have little pieces of this puzzle and so we have to find ways to integrate and work together to share information,” Purser said.
“One of the takeaways from Lauren’s murder is when students come forward and complain, believe them,” Guiora said. “I think it requires from everybody’s perspective, a culture shift, to recognize when he or she, or whatever gender affiliation comes forward, they’re actually speaking the truth.”
Purser told ABC4 conversations are in the early stages about how to make sure the more than 30,000 student voices are heard. She said they hope to work with the school’s researchers to create a survey on students’ concerns and priorities.
“We really are building this entirely new team, dedicated to our new vision and mission,” Purser said. “And that vision is to unite for a safe and empowered campus community, and I think that’s really important to keep in mind because that really is the north star.”
Unsafe U campus safety recommendations
Unsafe U shared nine recommendations with ABC4 that they believe would create a lasting impact on the school’s campus.
- The McCluskey Center for Violence Prevention needs to be established as a permanent center on campus and not just a presidential initiative.
“Many presidential initiatives, such as the Women’s Enrollment Initiative, die shortly after administrative switches.”
- The establishment of legal services program for students, which they said would help students in interpersonal violence situations get the necessary legal support.
“ [It] would help students who are in IPV situations get the legal support needed to file stalking injunctions, remove themselves from rental contracts with their perpetrator, and other forms of legal support which can help keep them safe.”
- An increase of funding and support for victim-survivor advocates.
“The caseload has exponentially increased at the Center for Student Wellness since VSAs came into existence.”
“The U continues to implement policies with very little communication with the student body.”
- Making data available
“Officer interaction data and budget data has been requested for over a year and students have been told that the data doesn’t exist. We have asked for a clear dashboard with this data presented in a way accessible for students and the public and it has yet to be created.”
- Accurate clery reports
“SB 163 will now require annual reports for safety data to have disaggregation of crime by building.”
- Accountability for divisions outside of DPS
“The Dean of Students office, OEO, Title IX office, and many other places across the university have created and maintained problematic policies, practices, and procedures for dealing with student safety issues. There is no recourse for these staff and administrators at the moment.”
- Reform to Title IX policies
“Recommendations have been made by policy experts in this area to make the processes more trauma-informed and to help survivors. These concerns have been rejected by OEO staff and the Office of General Counsel. The university is also actively blocking the release of these written recommendations from public view.”
- Abolition of University of Utah Police Department
“Eliminating UUPD would mean that those funds could be redirected to the center for student wellness, legal services support, and the Community Services division of DPS.”