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Lauren McCluskey’s parents file 2nd lawsuit against University of Utah

Suit claims U. had pattern of minimizing claims of harassment and violence reported by women

Matt McCluskey, left, father of slain University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey, speaks during a press conference at the offices of Parker & McConkie in Murray on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, as his wife, Jill, looks on. Former Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham has signed on as a lawyer in the McCluskeys’ $56 million lawsuit against the U. in Lauren’s death.
Matt McCluskey, left, father of murdered University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey, speaks during a press conference at the offices of Parker & McConkie in Murray on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, as his wife, Jill, looks on. The couple planned to file a second lawsuit Monday after mediation talks were unsuccessful.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — In the weeks leading up to the death of University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, her friends noticed signs of abuse and reported it to student housing administrators.

Those pleas for help — as well as McCluskey’s direct reports to police — were largely ignored based on her gender, according to a second lawsuit parents Matt and Jill McCluskey filed Monday against the university.

They allege the University of Utah Police Department as well as housing officials — as part of a pattern of minimizing claims of harassment and violence reported by women — failed to take steps to protect McCluskey after she and her friends repeatedly sought help, violating her right to gender equality.

“As a result of the university’s negligence and deliberate indifference predicated on gender-based assumptions and biases, Lauren was senselessly murdered by the man from whom she had repeatedly sought protection and about whom she had repeatedly complained to the university,” her attorneys wrote in an advance copy of the $56 million wrongful-death suit provided to the Deseret News.

In the weeks leading up to McCluskey’s shooting death on Oct. 22, 2018 by Melvin Shawn Rowland, 37, the student athlete’s friends noticed signs of abuse and spoke out about it, according to the suit.

On Sept. 30, 2018, one of McCluskey’s friends took her and others’ concerns about her safety to the graduate assistant for the dorm where she lived. They told the graduate assistant that McCluskey “was in an unhealthy and potentially harmful relationship with an older man who was possessive, controlling and manipulative,” the lawsuit alleges.

The friend told the graduate assistant “about Melvin Rowland’s delusions of infidelity, his jealous rages and his hostile quizzes, providing specific examples and anecdotes,” including changes in McCluskey’s personality and appearance, and unexplained marks and bruises on her body indicating abuse, attorneys wrote.

McCluskey’s friend also brought up Rowland’s stalking, and that he had “practically been living on campus at Lauren’s dormitory and that he was planning to get Lauren a gun to keep with her.” The friend said she feared for McCluskey’s life, according to the lawsuit.

Though the graduate assistant forwarded the report on to her supervisors, it resulted in inaction by administrators who wanted to “respect Lauren’s privacy,” attorneys said.

The new lawsuit names as defendants the state of Utah, University of Utah police, then-Police Chief Dale Brophy, officers who had been tasked with helping McCluskey, and individual student housing workers.

Housing employees ultimately decided to “follow up” with McCluskey regarding the school’s guest policy and “the implications associated with possessing a firearm on campus,” but did not actually do so, the lawsuit alleges.

“Upon information and belief, the Department of Housing had a policy of calling (university police) only as an absolute last resort, even in a dangerous situation, because (university police) had a reputation for rarely responding to calls for assistance and, even when officers did respond, they were often unhelpful and their tactics were routinely counterproductive,” according to attorneys.

From Oct. 10 until her death on Oct. 22, as Rowland’s harassment escalated, McCluskey called the U. police department more than 20 times reporting her concerns. Her parents claim officers never took their daughter’s concerns seriously. They also failed to determine Rowland was on parole and contact his parole officers. Rowland died of a self-inflicted gunshot hours after killing McCluskey.

In late May, allegations were raised that a former university officer to whom Lauren McCluskey sent compromising pictures to prove she was being blackmailed kept those pictures on his personal phone and bragged to other officers about having them.

Instead of helping McCluskey, according to the lawsuit, officer Miguel Deras “kept the explicit images on his personal cellphone and otherwise used the images for inappropriate personal purpose,” attorneys wrote.

An attorney for Deras said last month that his client never downloaded the photos to his phone or bragged about having them. He said messages and photos were sent to the officer’s department email and he used his personal cellphone to check his work email.

According to the lawsuit, the detective assigned to the case, Kayla Dallof, “failed to investigate or take any action with regard to Lauren’s reports of sexual harassment because (the department) had assigned and instructed detective Dallof to immediately investigate a series of bicycle thefts instead,” according to the lawsuit.

“Instead of intervening and protecting Lauren from her killer, the university officials and police ignored her, misled her, were dismissive of her complaints and avoided her requests for help. They did so based on gender stereotypes and indifference to the risks that women experience when they are suffering from domestic violence,” attorney Jim McConkie said in a statement Sunday.

The lawsuit alleges university police had a pattern of treating women reporting sexual assault and harassment as if they were under investigation, and would fail to take their claims seriously and investigate.

“For example, over the course of approximately six months, three separate women reported that they had been sexually assaulted by the same man on campus. Despite interviewing the victims, (U. police) made no attempt to contact the alleged harasser or otherwise investigate the incidents until the harasser sexually assaulted a fourth woman. The belated investigation resulted in an arrest and the harasser ultimately pled guilty to three counts of forcible sexual abuse,” attorneys wrote.

While the original federal lawsuit filed by McCluskey’s parents is based on the grounds of alleged violations to federal law, the latest lawsuit is based on alleged violations of Utah’s Constitution. The university has asked a judge to dismiss the McCluskeys’ first federal lawsuit, arguing in part that harassment from someone other than a student or employee cannot form the basis of a Title IX claim.

Mediation talks between Lauren McCluskey’s parents and the University of Utah in late May ended without an agreement. The parents said then they planned to file the second lawsuit.