SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) — The University of Utah held a conference Thursday about improving campus safety following the death of Zhifan Dong and others.
The University of Utah said the conference goal is to address plans to prevent student deaths and to help potential victims feel like they have somewhere to turn to.
This comes after an international student Zhifan Dong, 19, was murdered by a fellow student, Haoyu Wang, 26, in Feb. 2022. According to a timeline compiled by the U, Wang faced allegations involving domestic violence against Dong prior to the incident, which the U was aware of.
According to a statement made by the University of Utah President, Taylor Randall, he said they have a lot to improve when it comes to campus safety, especially in the incident of Dong’s death.
“Although the university made extensive efforts to support and ensure the safety of Dong and provide assistance to Wang,” Randall said. “Our self-evaluation revealed shortcomings: a delay by former members of our housing services staff in notifying the University of Utah Police Department of indications of intimate partner violence; processes, procedures, and trainings in housing that needed to be clarified and improved; and insufficient and unprofessional internal communication. “
In Randall’s statement, he also talked about the death of Lauren McCluskey in 2018.
Lauren McCluskey was allegedly murdered in October 2018 in a U campus parking lot by Melvin Rowland. After McCluskey’s death, a report showed University of Utah Police knew that Melvin Rowland, McCluskey’s alleged murderer, and ex-boyfriend, had a sex offender history, but did not contact Adult Probation and Parole.
Randall said since McCluskey’s murder, they have completely transformed the University of Utah Public Safety. He said those improvements included: establishing a new chief safety officer position, recruiting new police officers (more than 90% are new since 2019), creating more robust and thorough investigative practices, enhancing training on interpersonal violence intervention, investing in new public safety facilities and equipment, developing a public-facing dashboard, and establishing a center for research on improving campus safety.
Randall said in his statement that while they have made significant changes since McCluskey’s murder, they still have work to do to ensure students’ safety.
“When it comes to protecting our students, our job is never done. I’ve challenged university senior leaders to leave no stone unturned as we seek additional ways to enhance student safety, and I encourage all of you to do the same—every student, staff member, and faculty,” Randall said. “We must always actively prioritize the health and well-being of the students entrusted to our care.”
Lauren McCluskey’s mother, Jill McCluskey, was at the conference to speak about what Universities can be doing to prevent tragedies like these, including improved communication and campus police gaining the trust of students.
“There needs to be that trust and expectation of being heard that action will happen for a student to be brave enough to come forward and ask for help,” Jill McCluskey said.
She also spoke about Dong’s death and the shortcomings of the University’s housing department in preventing it and what the University can do to fix it.
“In the most recent tragedy, it was the housing where there was the failure. There needs to be more communication across the entities,” Jill McCluskey said. “There will be mistakes, but mistakes can be lethal. There needs to be attention to detail.”
The University discussed the future goals they have to improve their campus safety, including having 30% of their officers be women by 2030.
Chief safety officer Keith Squires spoke about how they’ve worked since McCluskey’s death to improve victim response, including new training procedures focused on interpersonal violence, stalking, and domestic violence, a new public safety building, and the addition of two victim survivor advocates.
“I am very impressed with all the changes. Over 90% of the police force is new after Lauren’s murder and so many people have joined because they genuinely care and they want to make a difference and they want to make the U a safer place,” Jill McCluskey shared.
The U said they will continue to focus on listening and changing, and being transparent, saying there will always be more work to be done.