SALT LAKE CITY — Parents of the University of Utah student shot and killed by an ex-boyfriend after they allege campus police ignored her reports have prepared a second $56 million lawsuit against the college but are holding off for now, their attorney said Monday.
Lauren McCluskey’s parents, Matt and Jill McCluskey, agreed to call off their plan to sue in state court Tuesday in favor of trying to work toward an agreement with the school in mediation over their federal court lawsuit next week, their attorney Jim McConkie said.
On Monday, McConkie provided journalists with a news release and advance copy of the 56-page wrongful death suit. It alleged the school’s police and housing officials failed to take steps to protect McCluskey after she and her friends repeatedly sought help, violating her right to gender equality under Utah’s Constitution.
But when McConkie sent the document to attorneys defending the university late Monday afternoon — in an attempt to be courteous, he said — they asked him to wait, voicing concern it would thwart negotiations. And his clients agreed.
“We’re hoping that this will kind of signal that we’re serious about mediation if the state is serious about mediation,” he said. “I was surprised they wanted us to not file it. I think that’s an indication they want to make an effort to get this behind them.”
The development comes after more evidence has surfaced, McConkie said, but he declined to provide details.
“Instead of intervening and protecting Lauren from her killer, the university officials and police ignored, dismissed, and avoided her requests for help,” the draft lawsuit said. “They did so based on gender stereotypes and indifference to the risks that women experience when they are suffering from domestic violence.”
In the separate, pending case in federal court, McCluskey’s parents allege the school violated the federal law against gender discrimination. The university has asked a judge to dismiss that suit, arguing in part that harassment from someone other than a student or employee cannot form the basis of a Title IX claim.
Lauren McCluskey, a 21-year-old communications major and track athlete from Pullman, Washington, was fatally shot Oct. 22, 2018, near her campus dorm by Melvin Shawn Rowland, who took his own life hours later. He was 37 years old, on parole and on the Utah Sex Offender Registry at the time, after spending several years in the Utah State Prison.
McCluskey confronted him when she discovered he had lied to her about his name, age and criminal history, and later broke off their relationship. She told campus police that Rowland then demanded money in exchange for not distributing intimate photos of her.
From Oct. 10 until her death, McCluskey called the U. police department several times, and telephoned the Salt Lake City police department in an effort to get help more quickly. But university police did not try to figure out if Rowland was behind the behavior or on parole, even though he could have been arrested for such parole violations as stalking, extortion or possessing a gun, her parents allege.
Several officers in the department “ignored Lauren’s report of stalking and sexual harassment and ignored the warning signs and patterns of domestic violence and dating violence by dismissing evidence that Melvin Rowland had extorted Lauren with no investigation into the matter and suggesting instead that Lauren was the victim of an online scam,” the draft lawsuit says.
It adds U. housing employees and officials did not take action when McCluskey’s friends reported that they were worried about her as Rowland became more possessive, talked about giving Lauren a gun and often stayed with her in the dorm.
“The problem from the very beginning has been that from our clients’ perspective, the university has never taken responsibility for what happened,” McConkie said. “They’ve been willing to make some changes but they’ve not been willing to say, ‘We are responsible in part for what happened and we need to resolve that matter and do what’s fair and right.’”
The McCluskeys allege U. police failed to properly investigate reports of sexual harassment from several other women, including after McCluskey’s death; didn’t discipline officers who mishandled the reports; and had a culture of sexual harassment against women employees.
Joni Jones, an assistant Utah attorney general representing the U., said earlier Monday she hadn’t yet seen the suit but noted the parties are scheduled to go into mediation next week.
“The timing of it is surprising, and I would say disappointing, because our focus has been on trying to get prepared to do our best to resolve this case,” she said.
“Certainly, Lauren McCluskey’s death is a terrible tragedy, and the university has been focused and continues to be focused on doing everything that they can to ensure that the university is as safe as it can be,” Jones said. “That’s where their focus is.”
An independent review last year found numerous mistakes were made by the university and and specified 30 recommendations, but concluded that it was impossible to say whether McCluskey’s death could have been avoided.
U. President Ruth Watkins said that the report did not offer any reason to believe the tragedy could have been prevented. Watkins has expressed sorrow for McCluskey’s death and noted the school was continuing to improve its policies for protecting students and others.
Any money McCluskey’s parents are awarded will go to the Lauren McCluskey Foundation, a nonprofit organization that honors their daughter’s legacy by supporting campus safety, amateur athletics and animal welfare, McConkie said.