Multiple Warnings, No Action

University of Utah student told campus police officers multiple times she was worried about repeated, harassing text messages from ex-boyfriend. They did little to help her, and he murdered her, on campus. Experts say the tragedy points to the need for colleges to do more about domestic violence.

January 22, 2019
 
University of Utah
Lauren McCluskey

Jill McCluskey was on the phone with her daughter when she heard the screams. On the phone call on an October night, Jill heard her 21-year-old daughter, Lauren, a University of Utah student, yell out, “No, no, no!"

Lauren McCluskey was a track athlete who planned to graduate in 2019 and get a job in public relations or academic advising. Her obituary said she entered her first track meet at 8 years old. She volunteered at the YMCA, the Special Olympics and her local branch of the Humane Society, socializing cats so they could be more adoptable. Friends said she never had an unkind word to say about anyone.

Lauren was found dead in the back of a car in a campus parking lot.

She was shot by Melvin Shawn Rowland, a man she had dated for about a month, a relationship she ended and reported on multiple occasions to campus police, who missed signs that Rowland (who fatally shot himself after killing her) was abusive and controlling, according to a university-commissioned report on McCluskey’s case. Investigations by the institution and state found that the campus officers hadn’t been trained in domestic violence and to check whether Rowland was on active parole, which he was -- knowledge that many say could have saved McCluskey’s life.

Being on active parole (temporary release for good behavior) means Rowland's threatening conduct could have led to his being jailed. His parole agreement dictated he wasn't allowed to possess a firearm (as the reports insinuated he did) or have active social media accounts.

The tragedy of a young woman murdered by a man whom she told law enforcement she feared was enough to inspire national drama, but experts in dating violence say Lauren McCluskey’s death serves as an important lesson for institutions -- that they should invest financially in both their police forces and counselors, as well as coaching on how to prevent such incidents.

University officials have acknowledged they need to improve campus security, but have maintained it’s not clear whether McCluskey’s death was preventable.

The following comes from the twin reports that the university and state ordered after her death.

McCluskey met Rowland at a bar in early September and began a relationship with him for most of the month. Rowland, 37, lied to her about his age, claiming he was nearly a decade younger, and never told her about the original offense that put him in jail in 2004 -- he pled guilty to attempted sexual assault of a teenage girl. The university report states that McCluskey spoke to two friends in September and appeared sad because Rowland hadn't let her see her friends.

In early October, McCluskey unearthed Rowland's criminal record, confronted him about it and, shortly thereafter, broke off their relationship. She allowed him to use her car, however, to apparently run errands.

The same day McCluskey ended the relationship, Oct. 9, she received a text, which she believed to be a from a friend of Rowland’s, accusing her of breaking his heart. Investigators reported later that they believed Rowland was sending these messages. Other messages urged her to end her life.

McCluskey’s mother, worried about her daughter’s safety, talked with a university dispatcher the next day, and arranged for a security worker (not a police officer) to escort her to pick up her car from Rowland, which they did without incident.

But the text messages kept coming.

The day after McCluskey retrieved her car, she received a text that Rowland was in the hospital, allegedly because of an accident. Then on Oct. 12, she got a message that he had died.

McCluskey filed a report with campus police the same day she was told about Rowland’s purported death, characterizing the texts as nonthreatening. An officer informed her then that “not much can be done.”

On Oct. 13, McCluskey contacted police again, this time because she received a message blackmailing her. She was warned that “compromising pictures” of her would be made public if she did not send $1,000 to a bank account. Police interviewed McCluskey at the campus police headquarters that day, but ultimately, a formal investigation didn’t begin until six days later, in part because the detective on the case was working on other assignments. The university report criticizes the department for not recognizing “possible dangers” of domestic violence that were present in the text messages.

Listen to the rest of the 911 calls between Lauren McCluskey and police.

The same day that McCluskey was killed, Oct. 22, she received fake texts, allegedly from the university deputy police chief, asking her to come to the police building. She called an officer instead, who directed her not to respond to the messages, though the officer did not report the impersonation. McCluskey was murdered later that night.

The reports document a rash of other errors. The detective assigned to McCluskey's case wasn’t versed in interpersonal violence. The initial report of McCluskey taking back her car wasn’t documented with university police because they did not handle the interaction. Officers who worked with McCluskey -- who are spread thin at the institution, with the police department understaffed, according to the university report -- never interviewed her in her dormitory because they were unable to leave their assigned posts. This meant they didn’t pick up on more subtle hints that the case was so serious -- like the fact that McCluskey covered her window with a blanket because she thought Rowland had peered into her room.

“There’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction with a police officer and a crime victim to ascertain the whole story of what is happening or what has happened,” said Sue Riseling, executive director of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. Riseling was also one of the three-member team to prepare the report for the university.

McCluskey’s friends also had expressed concerns to university housing officials as early as September. They reported to a resident assistant that McCluskey was in an “unhealthy” and “controlling” relationship and that Rowland had been “practically living with her” and that he had floated giving McCluskey a gun. When the report went up the chain of command in university housing, the administrators concluded that they should not “overstep” unless McCluskey sought out help, because she was “in an apparently consensual relationship,” though officials did intend to raise whether Rowland’s frequent stays in her room violated policies around long-term guests.

Campus police officers also weren’t properly trained to identify whether Rowland was on active parole. An agent from Utah’s Adult Probation and Parole contacted Rowland in mid-October but was unaware of McCluskey’s concerns because campus police had not communicated with the state. Campus law enforcement checked Rowland’s criminal history, which did reveal his conviction but not his parole status. He was out on parole for the third time.

Utah’s criminal records, however, do not note whether an offender is on probation or parole -- they used to, but a Federal Bureau of Investigation audit determined in 2015 this was a violation of the federal agency’s rules.

But the state’s report documents flaws with their systems for tracking parolees’ status, too. The Department of Corrections maintains a system called O-Track, which mistakenly only had a record of Rowland’s parole identification number, but not his driver’s license.

Despite the university’s findings, administrators have never clearly stated that McCluskey’s death was avoidable if police had not erred, which her family and have friends have said is the case. At a press conference in December, President Ruth Watkins said the report “does not offer us reason to believe this tragedy could have prevented.”

Earlier this month, when Jill McCluskey wrote to The Salt Lake Tribune outlining her complaints with the university’s process, officials acknowledged “identified mistakes and weaknesses in university procedures” but said in a statement “there is no way to know for certain whether this tragic murder could have been prevented.”

“If our daughter’s death could have been prevented after she reached out to campus police so many times, we have to ask, is anyone’s daughter safe?” Jill McCluskey wrote in a letter to the Tribune. “She did everything she could to obtain help from an organization that claims to have an overriding objective of protecting the safety of students. This organization fatally failed her. What will it take for them to treat women’s concerns seriously and with urgency when they complain about harassment, peeking through their windows, extortion and impersonating a police officer?”

The university announced in December it will add staffers to both its Public Safety Department and its Behavioral Intervention Team, a group in its counseling center designed to handle students who are a threat to themselves or others who are worried about being harmed. It also will train its campus officers in the Lethality Assessment Program, developed to identify the signs of domestic violence.

Riseling, of the police association, said that this is a good investment, given that campus police forces have suffered financially since the Great Recession in 2008. While the association does not maintain any data on police budgets, Riseling said anecdotally the top reason that campus police agencies did not renew their membership with the association was because they could not afford it. The dues range between $400 and $500 annually, Riseling said -- there was about an 11 percent drop in the association’s 4,000 members, which are a mixture of colleges and universities, individuals and businesses.

“It’s just gotten so much tighter over the last seven to 10 years,” Riseling said.

But since 2013, when Congress approved the Violence Against Women Act, an expansion to the federal law that requires colleges to individually report certain crimes (sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence and stalking), these issues have gotten more attention on campuses, said Abigail Boyer, interim director of the Clery Center.

The Clery Center is named for that federal law, the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act.

While Boyer said she has heard budget complaints, she said that she has encouraged campus law enforcement to reach out to local and state coalitions on domestic violence. These organizations often receive federal grants for such training. But she said all parts of the university, and officials outside of law enforcement -- in student affairs, in residence life -- should be learning about these problems, too.

“Reports can come in anywhere,” Boyer said.

Universities should also then educate their professors and students on domestic violence, said Kerri Raissian, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut and a specialist in child and family and interpersonal violence.

Women ages 16 to 24, the demographic traditionally entering college, are at the highest risk of dating violence, Raissian said. But she stressed that men, and people in same-sex partnerships, can also be victims. College students are often dismissed when they bring up troubles in relationships because the turbulence is just considered “part of the college experience, something you experience as a young adult.”

“While some of that is true, there are some clear warning signs that are not normal,” Raissian said, noting in McCluskey’s case the repeated text messages and preceding controlling behavior.

Universities should financially bolster not only their police, but also their counseling centers, and employ more people who can handle the “emotional” side of domestic violence incidents, which police may not be equipped to do, Raissian said. Students, without these resources at hand, can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233), which is staffed all the time, she said.

At Raissian’s institution, the Dean of Students Office offers victim advocacy services, which employs people who will help survivors of domestic violence as police work through their cases. Nationwide, most victim services are placed within campus police departments.

The University of Florida’s police department, for instance, employs three full-time advocates, who assist in reviewing cases and conduct campuswide seminars on domestic violence and other crimes in addition to their traditional duties.

Some institutions also maintain “special victims' units” within their campus law enforcement. Michigan State University’s investigates sex crimes, relationship violence, stalking and harassment, and child abuse, and officers in the unit receive special “trauma-informed” training.

Yale University, meanwhile, employs a “sensitive crimes coordinator” who doesn’t investigate cases but can sit in on interviews and make sure students are connected to resources and may work with students on a safety plan, including finding them appropriate alternative housing if they are in danger.

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