SALT LAKE CITY — He urged sweeping changes to better protect college students who have been stalked, sexually assaulted or attacked by a significant other, but Matt McCluskey told Utah lawmakers on Monday his request was simple.
His 21-year-old daughter, "poised, kind and thoughtful — excited about the future and happy about her life — was taken," he said with a faltering voice, after she briefly dated the wrong person.
"Remember Lauren Jennifer McCluskey, who would have turned 22 Feb. 12 and graduated this May," the father urged a legislative panel at the Utah Capitol.
Members of the House Education Committee obliged. In a unanimous vote, they advanced a proposal designed to strengthen campus safety across Utah, passing it on to the full House. Some lawmakers signaled they will make even further attempts to close gaps that led to the October death of the senior communication major and track athlete.
"This bill is in some sense written in blood," Matt McCluskey told the panel, saying SB134 had the potential to "break down silos" and help colleges better protect students from harm and possibly death.
The measure seeks to strengthen accountability for universities and their police forces by codifying standards on training, prevention and coordination with off-campus law enforcement. It would require colleges to create and publish online safety plans and then continually tweak them to ensure they detail resources available to victims, give guidance on how to report off-campus crimes and clarify protocol for working with outside police agencies.
On Monday, Matt McCluskey recalled listening from the next room to a "lively conversation" his wife Jill McCluskey was having with their daughter. While still on the phone, the student was killed outside her dorm by a man she had dated before learning he was a sex offender and more than a decade older than her.
Matt McCluskey noted his daughter had spoken with university police several times before her death, telling them that 37-year-old Melvin Rowland demanded money in exchange for not posting intimate photos of her. She reported that he had peeked through her window and harassed her, and her friends told housing officers that Rowland was going to bring a gun to campus. Police began investigating but never discovered his parole status or spoke with him.
The legislative proposal does not specifically guide campus forces on investigating whether an offender is on parole, but "if the spirit of the bill is captured by the people who are actually implementing it, then it will have a huge effect," Matt McCluskey said ahead of the meeting. "If this bill had been in place before, it would have reduced the chances my daughter would have been killed."
He believes other colleges across the nation are watching Utah and will make similar shifts on their own campuses.
The bill's sponsor, Senate Assistant Minority Whip Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, said she wants the McCluskeys to know that their daughter "is at the heart (of the bill) and she will always be remembered." Her measure also seeks to change campus culture, she said, by mandating that students, not just employees, receive bystander training. Members of official school groups like sports teams, sororities and fraternities would need to receive lessons reviewing consent, how to intervene if needed and how to support victims.
Rep. Lee Perry, chairman of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee, said his panel will continue to explore other possible measures to prevent a similar tragedy.
"I think this moves us in the right direction, but we do have more work ahead of us," the Republican from Perry said. Iwamoto added that she has more ideas of her own that may become bills next year.
College students and their families can rely on Utah to do a better job of making sure campuses are safe environments, added Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara. "Our state cannot make your family whole, but there is much good that we can do," he told Matt McCluskey.
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City, agreed. "Our daughters and granddaughters are at risk if they go away to college and plans like this are not put in place."
A current University of Utah student told the panel she was sexually assaulted during her freshman year and "had no concept of where to go."
"It brings me great joy in knowing there's a possibility we can better prevent this in the future," she said. The Deseret News does not typically name victims of sex crimes.
Jenn Oxborrow with the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition urged lawmakers to pass the bill, saying such improvements are possible not just on campuses, but across the state through partnerships between law enforcement agencies and shelters. The measure also has the support of Salt Lake police and the Utah State Board of Regents, the governing board over Utah's public colleges and universities.
At the University of Utah, administrators have acknowledged that police responded with an "insufficient sense of urgency" and have announced steps to improve investigations. Matt McCluskey emphasized that he and his wife, Jill McCluskey, commend the efforts but are disappointed that seemingly no university employees have been reprimanded.
The loss of their daughter is "a pain that’s so complete you almost can’t describe it. Every minute I think of Lauren. But at the same time, we put one foot in front of the other. And we go to work and we try to improve things for others. And that gives us some joy.”