SALT LAKE CITY — With the death of University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey in mind, a state lawmaker is seeking to strengthen campus safety when it comes to stalking, sexual assault and relationship violence.
"This bill ensures all campuses have a comprehensive, consistent safety plan in place," said Senate Assistant Minority Whip Jani Iwamoto, the bill's sponsor.
The Holladay Democrat seeks to force greater accountability on Utah's colleges by codifying standards on training, prevention and resources for those who have been targeted on or near campuses.
The measure is informed in part by the October slaying of McCluskey, 21, a U. track star and communications major shot and killed on campus by a parolee she dated before learning he was a sex offender and more than a decade older than her. She had reported to U. police that he had tried to extort her and that he scared her when he appeared at her dorm.
"She'll be remembered," Iwamoto said, adding she has considered for some time how Utah can improve campuses so students won't fear for their safety.
The proposal would require colleges to develop and publish online plans detailing resources available at the school and in surrounding communities, the steps administrators take to keep reports confidential, plus guidance on how and where to report off-campus assaults. The policies would undergo annual updates and schools would report their progress to lawmakers each year, including how they coordinate with nearby law enforcement agencies.
"It will shine a light," Iwamoto said of the measure.
The bill also would require training for each student member of sports teams, clubs, sororities and fraternities, and any other group officially recognized by the school. The workshops would review consent, ways to intervene when concerning behavior crops up and how to support victims.
Iwamoto acknowledged that many campuses already have a version of the plan, but said the bill would standardize the practices. Her measure, SB134, advanced in a unanimous vote Thursday from the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee.
If successful, the proposal would build on existing federal law by mandating students, not just employees, to receive the training, said Mara Haight, executive director of the Rape Recovery Center.
Equipping large groups of students with the tools would be "so impactful," she told the panel on Thursday.
Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown told the panel his agency supports the bill. He noted that research indicates women ages 18-24 are sexually assaulted more often than any other age group.
"Every time we allow these crimes to occur, the system has failed," Brown said. "We need to do better."
Currently, it can be difficult for ordinary Utahns to figure out which agency to call to report a crime on a good day, added Wendy Isom, a victim advocate with Salt Lake police.
"It can be almost impossible in a crisis," she said.
Iwamoto said many campuses and student groups are already moving in good direction, including the U. fraternity Betha Theta Pi, which has long partnered with the Rape Recovery Center in Salt Lake City to raise money and awareness.
"When you think of a fraternity, you generally think of people that would be perpetrators of this type of crime," said Jackson Andersen, the head of philanthropy for the fraternity. But his group's efforts have started to change campus culture, he said, explaining several students have told him the fraternity's initiative has made them feel more at ease.
Higher education leaders believe the move will help colleges spot each other's successes and borrow ideas from one another, said Geoffrey Landward, general counsel for the Utah Board of Regents.
"Having this law sends the right message for all of our schools and the state," he said.
Judith Zimmerman, a former professor at the U., told the panel she once reported feeling threatened at the university but struggled to find help and support even though she was savvy at navigating the school's bureaucracy.
"I can't imagine student going through what I went through," she told the panel.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said McCluskey's death shows that campus police forces must coordinate better with their counterparts just outside a school's boundaries, and the separate departments may do well to combine.
"We need to make sure this doesn't happen again," he said.
McCluskey called and met with police several times before her death, reporting that the man she had dated, 37-year-old Melvin Rowland, demanded money in exchange for not posting intimate photos of her. Police began investigating but never checked his parole status. After an outside investigation found her death exposed gaps in U. policies and how they are enforced, the school acknowledged that its handling of McCluskey's reports resulted in an "insufficient sense of urgency regarding the case."
The school has announced stepsto improve how it investigates criminal cases and determines if a student is at risk of violence.6 comments on this story
Jim Webster, who lives in the Yalecrest neighborhood near the university, asked the committee to consider similar requirements to inform those who live near campuses, but aren't students.
Webster said he called the Salt Lake City Police Department to ask for information the night McCluskey was found dead on campus, but a dispatcher told him the agency had no communication with the school's officer.
"Therein lies the problem," he said. "There is a failure to communicate."
The measure advances to the full Senate.