The mother of Lauren McCluskey says the University of Utah and its police department have done a lot to improve safety and protect women since her daughter was murdered on campus in 2018.

"I have been very impressed with all the changes. Over 90% of the police force is new after Lauren's murder. And so many people have joined because they care, they genuinely want to make a difference and want to make the U. a safer place," Jill McCluskey said.

But there is still work that needs to be done, such as getting students to trust police.

"I think it's always harder to come back from when there was a mistake. And the previous administration was not transparent and the students did not feel listened to. So I think that it takes time to overcome that. And I know that it's very different now. I think there's a path going forward," McCluskey said.

Lauren McCluskey, 21, a star student-athlete at the University of Utah, was shot and killed on campus on Oct. 22, 2018, by a man she had met a few months earlier who lied about his name and age. When Lauren McCluskey learned that Melvin Shawn Rowland, 37, was a registered sex offender and had been paroled from prison three times, she contacted police. But Rowland continued to stalk and make extortion attempts against her. Despite numerous attempts to get help from campus police, family members say their daughter's pleas were ignored and her case was not taken seriously. The family says their daughter's death was preventable.

After her death, McCluskey's parents sued the University of Utah and reached a $13.5 million settlement in 2020. The U.'s police chief resigned in 2019 and numerous policy changes were made around campus in an effort to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

On Thursday, the Utah of Utah Department of Public Safety hosted its first Campus Safety Conference. The goal of the conference is to "explore important and relevant topics affecting campus safety for all users, explore future trends, and discuss new approaches to campus safety that are making a difference," according to the department.

The keynote speaker on Thursday was Jill McCluskey, who is a professor and the director of the School of Economic Sciences at Washington State University. After her daughter's death, McCluskey founded the Lauren McCluskey Foundation to help improve campus safety and improve how police respond to victims.

Jill McCluskey, mother of slain University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey, delivers the keynote address on Thursday at the first annual Campus Safety Conference hosted by the University of Utah Department of Public Safety.
Jill McCluskey, mother of slain University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey, delivers the keynote address on Thursday at the first annual Campus Safety Conference hosted by the University of Utah Department of Public Safety. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

McCluskey says she is "just so impressed with so many of the changes that have happened" at the U. since her daughter's murder. But she said police need to continue to work to gain the trust of students in order to do their jobs more effectively and students need to feel that their concerns will be heard and action will be taken.

"I've heard from so many victims that they don't want to come forward because they will be the one who is investigated, not the person they're accusing of harassing them," she said.

Not coming forward, McCluskey said, could also result in a "terrible outcome" for a student.

She says from her daughter's case, her foundation has learned that a timely response is important for police, that victim advocates should be made available, and a lethality assessment program should be offered. McCluskey says there also needs to be a culture in which police believe women and victim shaming doesn't happen.

"As the mother of a victim, I have had so much victim blaming, it's shocking," said McCluskey, adding that even today there are those who try to victim shame her. "Our campus police have had to respond a number of times (to reports of people) who have harassed me just because of my daughter."

The changes also don't need to come just from police. She says everyone must step up in protecting students, including those in charge of student housing and counselors.

Lauren McCluskey | University of Utah

"There just needs to be more communication across all the entities. And there will be mistakes. But mistakes can be lethal. So there needs to be so much attention to detail on that boots-on-the-ground level. Even the resident assistants and everyone needs to be trained really well and maybe even reminded what they do," she said.

McCluskey points to the death last year of U. exchange student Zhifan Dong, 19, of Anyan, China, and says school housing officials failed her.

When the Lauren McCluskey Foundation was founded, it included "Lauren's Promise," which asks faculty, staff, students, parents, and community members to vow to listen to and believe people who are being threatened or experiencing sexual assault, dating violence or stalking and to help them. Jill McCluskey says she includes the promise on all of her syllabi that she hands out to students.

On Thursday, she said she has also thought about whether there should be a law enforcement promise that says, "I will treat you with respect and dignity, investigate with urgency, and protect you if someone is threatening you."