Unsafe U Challenges U of U Claims of a Safe Campus Culture

For the past few years at the University of Utah, the month of October has been rife with tragedy. Right off of campus on October 30, 2017, ChenWei Guo, an international student at the U, was shot and killed in a car hijacking incident. Then, on October 22, 2018, Lauren McCluskey, a student and star track athlete, was murdered outside of her dorm building by Melvin Rowland, a registered sex offender on parole, who lied about his identity during the time they had formerly been dating. 

Prior to this tragic event, McCluskey contacted University Police, who failed to take her multiple reports seriously. She also reached out to the Salt Lake Police Department because University Police were not helping her, but because of jurisdiction laws, she was simply referred back to University Police since she lived on campus. 

In response to the clear failures of the University of Utah to protect McCluskey, this university’s administration has begun to implement measures to increase safety; however, they continue to refuse to take responsibility for her death. From an independent review of campus safety, the University of Utah implemented all safety measures that were recommended. In addition to simply placing posters around campus that claim “Safety is a Culture” and “Safety Comes First, Second, and Third,” there have been revisions to night classes, updates to parking rules, changes to overnight guest policies, and the creation of a SafeRide system. While these safety measures are a step in the right direction to protect students, the University of Utah administration’s refusal to realize their accountability in the role of McCluskey’s death continues to enrage students. 

In June 2019, McCluskey’s parents filed a $56 million civil lawsuit against the University of Utah with the claim that campus police could have prevented their daughter’s murder. Since this lawsuit was filed, the University of Utah has attempted to dismiss the lawsuit by stating that “no matter how tragic,” campus police officers had no obligation to protect McCluskey. In September, their motion to dismiss was released, and it contains clear examples of victim-blaming and a general avoidance of responsibility. ASUU has since issued a statement denouncing the University’s language, with their statement reaffirming ASUU’s disappointment with University leadership and police forces. 

At this time, a new Instagram account, @unsafe.u, was created to unite students and share messages of the University’s various failings. On September 24, the page shared their first post, stating that “students aren’t safe if institutions and individuals alike are not held responsible for student safety.” The page, which to date has over 1600 followers, has been consistently posting about the missteps the university has taken, and they have planned various protests and organized students in order to advocate for increased action to protect individuals who are paying to attend this institution. 

A few of the creators of the page stated, “It's demoralizing to see that a university you care so much about can't be bothered to think about how to take care of the very people who give it purpose. But looking at the wider picture, if the lawsuit is dismissed, it sets the tone for how the University will respond to, and work to prevent, future incidents. And that's not just our school— I think that the nation is looking at us to see how this will play out.” If the lawsuit is dismissed, immediately, it will set a precedent that students are not a protected population and universities won’t have an obligation to help students when they are confronted with safety issues. 

Coloring the entire dialogue of safety at the University of Utah is the fact that October is nationally recognized as Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but the University of Utah has not addressed this fact and has instead shifted attention to the creation of a “SafeU Month” for the duration of October. This action, coupled with the University of Utah’s continual refusal to take accountability and recognize their role in McCluskey’s death, has overall created a feeling of insecurity on campus. As one of the creators of the @unsafe.u page stated, “The University that says it has our safety in mind really just has it’s own.” While it is understandable that the university might want to avoid paying a $56 million lawsuit, their refusal simultaneously demonstrates that they are focused on the financial elements of the case, and they have not recognized the damage they are still creating and the fear they are instilling in students. 

“The University that says it has our safety in mind really just has it’s own.”

In order to address these safety concerns, @unsafe.u has created a petition, has planned protests, and has made arrangements for continued action to showcase students’ anger towards the university — including a class walkout on October 21. The founders of @unsafe.u want “student support for our movement, through the walkout and our petition. We'll need as much support as we can get to make sure that these changes will be enacted. It's not going to be one walkout and done. This is going to take time, and we hope that more students will join in this fight with us. Looking wider than life here on campus, [voting is essential]. Local offices matter. State offices matter. With Title IX in flux, we are going to need the best people in office to protect our rights. If our university doesn't back us up or make sure that UPD can be dependable, I think that Lauren's experience speaks pretty well of the state of UPD.” 

Most recently, the University of Utah has issued a statement in response to Unsafe U’s declaration of protest. The U’s statement reads in part, “We applaud our students for advocating for changes and for their interest in making campus a safer place. Creating a culture of safety means that all members of our community — administrators, students, faculty, staff and visitors — have important roles to play… We know the work of making campus safer is a journey, and that this work will never be finished. Dialogues are an important part of this process.” While it is at least a step in generally the right direction to recognize that there are still improvements to be made, the overall tone of the short statement downplays the gravity of this issue. In their words, the University of Utah appears to care for student safety, but in action, they are simply hypocritical. Besides implementing safety updates that were long needed, the U has done nothing to address their role in McCluskey’s murder and the current status of an unsafe campus climate. 

Clearly, the University of Utah still has a long way to go before a truly safe campus culture actually exists. Until then, students are encouraged to speak out, sign petitions, engage in public protests, and participate in local elections in order to see and make the changes they want, need, and deserve. 

 

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