U Of U Responds After Student Leaders Speak Out Against Handling Of McCluskey Case

Sep 26, 2019, 5:16 AM | Updated: 10:52 pm

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Student leaders at the University of Utah are speaking out against their school officials.

It’s in response to the university filing a motion to dismiss a $56 million lawsuit filed by slain student Lauren McCluskey’s parents. In the motion, university attorneys essentially argued that because McCluskey’s killer, Melvin Rowland, was not a student, it can not be held responsible for his actions.

“I’d say it’s absolutely tone-deaf,” said former Associated Students of the University of Utah assembly representative Owen Migdal. “There was never at the time…even a real apology. It shouldn’t have happened…and everyone knows that.”

Students who were there last October said they couldn’t believe how the university is fighting the lawsuit of her death.

“They say that we’re safer than we were a year ago – we should be safer than that,” he said. “That’s what a lot of students are saying.”

It also stated that it couldn’t protect McCluskey from Rowland because he was often willingly invited to her dorm room.

Those comments directly contradict what McCluskey’s mother, Jill McCluskey, alleges.

She said campus police failed Lauren McCluskey despite her repeated calls for help — even in the hours before she was killed.

The ASUU weighed in with a resolution that made three points:

  • ASUU says it is disappointed by the language used in the motion to dismiss charges.
  • It expresses concern that the university leaders hold no responsibility “to protect students on campus when the threats involve parties who are not current students at the University of Utah.”
  • ASUU says it is “opposed to statements made by the University that have been widely interpreted as victim blaming as part of the lawsuit.”

“I mean…this is a slap in the face to, I’m sure, the family of Lauren,” Migdal said. “You would expect a university — especially a university that is funded by the state — would care more about their students’ safety.”

He said he hopes the school will reconsider its approach while continuing to work toward the safety of all students.

“They never really took the time to listen to students’ concerns like they should have,” Migdal said.

The University of Utah on Sept. 25 released a statement in response:

Dear ASUU Leadership, Senate and Assembly,

Thank you for sharing your concerns and for your diligent efforts to represent your peers and their experience at the University of Utah. I want to address perceptions and clarify information about the motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed against the university by the family of Lauren McCluskey. I hope the following explanation will add some clarity in a complex and tragic situation.

Let me address a few specific points from the resolution.

Nowhere in the motion does it state that the university’s “officers had no obligation to protect McCluskey from her attacker.” That specific phrase is taken from a local media outlet’s interpretation and coverage of the lawsuit. You can read the motion in its entirety online.

In the motion, the university has not argued that its police have no responsibility to protect students. The motion to dismiss simply reflects current federal law which prohibits monetary judgments against the university and its officers under the circumstances in this case.

The university is deeply committed to improving campus safety. The university embraces its moral and ethical responsibilities to engage in continuous improvement of safety on our campus. Mounting a legal defense against a monetary judgment cannot and should not be equated with a rejection of that responsibility. The university has taken concrete steps since Lauren’s death to improve and to foster a culture of safety across campus through our SafeU initiative. This work is ongoing and we welcome feedback and partnership with students, faculty and staff in strengthening our efforts.

The university has its own police force to provide local, campus-centric security for our community—something we believe would be lost if policing were integrated into a larger outside law enforcement entity. A university-governed campus police department is a national best practice for a campus this size. The university intends to continue investing in its police force through new leadership, additional training and expanded resources.

Our campus is safer today than it was last year. The university has made significant improvements to infrastructure and staffing, as well as practices and policies across campus. We have completed virtually all items identified by the independent review team enlisted last year, as well as additional recommendations from the campus safety task force. These include hiring new personnel, requiring specific trainings, clarifying reporting structures and revising policies. Significant and meaningful work has taken place and is ongoing across campus.

Regarding your concern about language used in the motion to dismiss, that document cites the facts as alleged by the McCluskeys in their legal filing and legal standards applied by courts to evaluate claims like this. Therefore, none of the statements in the motion were intended, or should be read, to suggest victim blaming. Let me be clear, the university does not believe that Lauren McCluskey had any responsibility for the heinous actions of her murderer.

Now, I would like to put the motion to dismiss in context. A motion to dismiss is a standard initial response to a lawsuit and is based entirely on the factual allegations stated in the complaint. The purpose of the motion is to address the legal theories presented by the plaintiffs in their pursuit of a monetary judgment. The federal court will apply current legal standards to the plaintiffs’ facts as outlined in their complaint. Filing a motion to dismiss does not preclude the university from seeking a negotiated resolution.

In litigation, the university works collaboratively with other state entities. Under Utah law, the Utah Attorney General’s Office conducts litigation on behalf of the university. The Utah State Division of Risk Management approves and pays monetary judgments and settlements against the state, including the university. Settlements over $1 million require the approval of the governor and the state legislature.

Thank you again for sharing your concerns. I hope that this information is helpful.


Phyllis Vetter
General Counsel, University of Utah

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U Of U Responds After Student Leaders Speak Out Against Handling Of McCluskey Case