SALT LAKE CITY — Even though a broad proposal to improve campus safety in Utah was just signed by the governor, one state lawmaker is already exploring how to close specific gaps revealed by the death of college student Lauren McCluskey.
"We can't bring Lauren back, but we certainly should be doing everything in our power to make sure it doesn't happen again," said Rep. Lee Perry, a Republican from the northern Utah town of Perry.
McCluskey, a senior at the University of Utah, was shot and killed in October 2018 by a 37-year-old parolee who had harassed her after she learned he was a sex offender and more than a decade older than her and broke off their brief relationship. The track and field athlete and communication major would have graduated in May.
The wide-ranging SB134, which Gov. Gary Herbert signed Friday, requires colleges to publicize the steps they are taking to better help victims and would force bystander training for more students. It faced no public opposition at the Legislature.
"This is a good bill," said S. Daniel Carter, a campus safety expert who helped craft a 2013 federal campus safety law. "My concern is that this bill is not specifically tied to the gaps that were identified in the Lauren McCluskey case."
For example, the measure does not address the failures of university police to assess the risk McCluskey faced or uncover the parole status of sex offender Melvin Rowland. The school has since acknowledged its investigation was not timely and has announced a series of improvements.
But lawmakers could also move to prevent such a tragedy in the future.
One possible solution: making sure criminal background information is easily accessible to each police department in the state. When an officer checked Rowland's background using his driver's license, the system failed to flag his parole status, but U. officers also generally didn't understand how to navigate the system, according to an outside review commissioned by the university.
Perry, the chairman of Utah's House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice committee, said the lapses may require a legislative fix. He plans to ask Utah's campus police forces and neighboring law enforcement agencies to meet with the panel later this year.
"We want people to be able to get rehabilitated and move on, but if they're in the system through (Adult Probation and Parole), we need to make sure law enforcement on the campuses and in the surrounding community are aware of it," he said.
Lawmakers also may consider requiring police to use questionnaires that determine a person's risk of relationship violence when responding to certain reports, Perry said. The protocol already is used by several police forces in Utah, and the U. has announced its police will receive the training as part of the overhaul.
Other approaches may not require the Legislature's intervention, Perry said. For example, college departments could enter into agreements with neighboring agencies that allow them to receive help when their caseload piles up. The review of the McCluskey case found U. police were understaffed.
"I just want to build this relationship and say, 'It's OK to cross boundaries and help each other out," said Perry, who is also a section commander with the Utah Highway Patrol.
The measure approved by the Legislature this year requires Utah's public colleges to give yearly updates to lawmakers on their plans to combat stalking, sexual assault and relationship violence.
The annual reports would include the steps they've taken in the last 18 months and the ones they plan to make in the next two years. The first progress reports will be due July 1.
The measure would also mandate bystander training for each student group and clarify where students can get help and report the crimes.
Lauren's father, Matt McCluskey, urged Perry and others on the legislative panel to support the bill at a hearing at the state Capitol earlier this month.
He told the Deseret News that the new law is a good start.
"The bill itself is in essence the Legislature speaking to the universities, and I think they will probably listen. But it's true, there are not any real teeth in case a university decided to drag its feet. The bill would have to be implemented in good faith by administrators, and if that's done, then it will have a positive effect," he said.
Matt McCluskey said he does not have a prescription in mind for further legislative efforts. The university, however, has not shown it has held any employees accountable in his daughter's death, he said, calling it "a glaring omission that no individual has been sanctioned to my knowledge."5 comments on this story
The bill on Gov. Herbert's desk is "not perfect, but it's a step," said its sponsor, Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay. While she had McCluskey in mind, Iwamoto has sought to improve campus safety for some time, she said.
After the colleges make their first yearly report to lawmakers, Iwamoto said, she plans to identify other areas to improve a college's response to sexual and relationship violence.
"I think you have to hit this at all angles," she said. "There's so much to do, and it's so prevalent."
Help for those in abusive relationships can be found through the confidential Utah Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-897-LINK (5465) or online at udvc.org.