University of Utah students demand meeting with President Watkins about campus safety

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – On the heels of the one-year anniversary of Lauren McCluskey’s murder, a group of University of Utah students issued a “declaration of protest,” saying university officials have not done enough to improve campus safety and demanding a meeting with President Ruth Watkins.

“There was a time when it was more appropriate for us to ask, but we’ve passed that time. Since we’ve been ignored and haven’t been heard, there comes a point where we have to demand these things,” said Rebecca Hardenbrook, member, and spokesperson for unsafeU. “It makes us truly outraged. No one on this campus should be concerned about being safe.”

When concerns made by unsafeU were initially brought to the university by ABC4 News in September, a spokesperson wrote in a statement:

“The university has taken accountability by making meaningful changes and investing in campus safety. We have added five key positions to our police force, including a victim advocate and a detective with extensive experience investigating and addressing interpersonal violence.

Our police officers now have been trained in the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition’s Lethality Assessment Program – a nationally recognized program for improving officers’ understanding and responsiveness to issues involving interpersonal violence.

We have made significant changes in our housing program, adding staff and revising policies so that staff know exactly what to do when questions arise regarding the safety and well-being residents. We have made substantial investments in lighting, security cameras, our courtesy escort program and our new SafeRide program.”

University of Utah President Ruth Watkins also designated October as SafeU Month, described as an “opportunity for the entire campus to engage in safety awareness, education, and training.” But Hardenbook said her group believes it’s not enough.

“A “SafeU Month” is great. But a safe year would be better,” said Hardenbrook.

The declaration unsafeU issued on Monday stated, ‘This administration has maintained the position that we are the sole cause of the violence committed against us’ and ‘we assert that victims are never responsible for their own harassment, their own assault, or their own abuse, and are especially never, ever responsible for their own murder.”

They went on to write, “We are routinely dismissed and ignored by officers who appear to be unequipped to assist us, indifferent to our wellbeing, or both. It is now routine that formal complaints regarding sexual assault, rape, stalking, and interpersonal violence are mishandled, and there are no indicators that this new normal will change anytime soon.”

The declaration included a list of demands such as establishing a permanent student oversight board for campus safety that would be able to hold hearings, investigate patterns of misconduct, and independently review campus safety initiatives.

“Holding listening sessions with students is much different than allowing us to be at the decision-making table and putting us in a place of power,” said Hardenbrook. “We, the students, are the ones living and breathing this. We experience the good and bad things on campus.”

Other demands include:

  • Creating a student ombudsman office similar to that for faculty for students who experience institutional grievances
  • Requiring the University Police Department to respond to student reports with a sense of urgency and making confirmed contact with students reporting sexual misconduct within 12 hours
  • Developing a SafeU certification program for faculty, staff, and UPD officers to complete
  • Increasing financial support to UPD to fund increased coordination, additional training, and a new location

The group asked in the declaration for a meeting with President Ruth Watkins by Monday. University officials issued this statement in response to the declaration:

“We applaud our students for advocating for changes and for their interest in making campus a safer place. Creating a culture of safety means that all members of our community—administrators, students, faculty, staff and visitors—have important roles to play.

Many of the items noted in the Declaration of Protest have been, or are in the process of being, addressed. More information can be found here. Nonetheless, we know the work of making campus safer is a journey, and that this work will never be finished. Dialogues are an important part of this process.

President Ruth Watkins is happy to meet with students to discuss campus safety initiatives and the topics specifically noted in the Declaration of Protest. Students are invited to contact the Office of the President to schedule a meeting.”

“I’m fairly certain that we’re not going to get a meeting with her [President Watkins] before then [Monday]. Especially because their response has been for us to schedule a normal appointment through their online system. The closest opening is in November,” said Hardenbrook. “We don’t have time to wait. I know a month is really not that long in the grand scheme of things, but in terms of student safety, we need to act now. By now, I mean, today.”

She said her group found the school’s response disappointing.

“They didn’t address any of the demands we made. Working on addressing issues doesn’t mean much. That could mean that you’re thinking about it and then you just let that thought go,” she said.

A walkout and protest has been scheduled at noon on Monday in front of the Parks Building in Presidents’ Circle, the day before the one-year anniversary of Lauren McCluskey’s murder.

“The reason why we’re having the protest a day before is because we don’t want to take the focus away from Lauren. People will be angry, but on the actual day of the anniversary, we’ll focus on honoring her,” she said.

Hardenbrook did note that her group had a meeting scheduled with the University of Utah’s Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs Dan Reed sometime next week, but would still like to meet with President Watkins.

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