University of Utah
Last October, Lauren McCluskey, a student at the University of Utah, was being harassed by her ex-boyfriend.
Melvin Rowland sent the young track-and-field star threatening text messages, told her he would release her nude photographs unless she paid him $1,000, stalked her and ultimately murdered her on campus. He abducted her while she was on the phone with her mother, shooting her several times and leaving her body in a car he had borrowed.
Rowland ended his life when campus police pursued him.
But when twin investigations (one commissioned by the university, the other by the state) revealed that the university’s law enforcement and housing offices had disregarded McCluskey’s and her friends' reports about Rowland, officials didn’t admit fault. They doubled down.
“There is no way to know for certain whether this tragic murder could have been prevented,” Utah president Ruth Watkins said in December.
Lauren’s parents disagree.
They learned about their daughter’s multiple phone calls to the campus police, her frantic reports of extortion, the fact that her friends told housing administrators that Rowland had cut Lauren off from her friends for weeks, was obsessed with her whereabouts and said he would buy her a gun to protect her from other men.
Rowland was a felon on parole, having spent a decade in prison for enticing a minor over the internet and attempted forcible sexual abuse. But he had lied to Lauren about his age and his name and didn’t disclose his crimes to her.
Now Jill and Matt McCluskey are suing university officials, including campus police chief Dale Brophy, whom many have called to be fired, for $56 million. They’re alleging that administrators' and law enforcement's indifference and lack of training in dating violence led to violations of a key federal law barring sex discrimination, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
The university has declined to discuss the lawsuit. Watkins said in a written statement it would be “addressed through the appropriate channels.”
“While there are differences in how we would characterize some of the events leading to Lauren’s tragic murder, let me say again that we share the McCluskey family’s commitment to improving campus safety,” Watkins said in her statement. “We continue to address the recommendations identified by the independent review of the university’s safety policies, procedures and resources, and we are making ongoing improvements designed to protect our students and our entire campus community.”
Title IX has been a major focus for the public (and for institutions) after the Obama administration released guidance around the law that activists credited with providing significant protections for survivors of sexual violence -- but critics said the new guidance ignored the rights of students accused of rape. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pulled the Obama rules almost two years ago, replacing them with new draft regulations unpopular among survivor advocates, but favored by those accused.
But Lauren McCluskey’s case does not focus on a struggle between an accused and accuser, or an accused student suing the university over a lack of due process, as is typical with many Title IX lawsuits.
The McCluskey suit deals with an aspect of sexual violence that many Title IX practitioners say is overlooked on college campuses: intimate partner, or dating, violence.
“Unfortunately the national discussion is very focused on the accuser. And we treat Title IX almost like a penal code system,” said Taylor Parker, a partner with Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses and the deputy Title IX coordinator at the Ringling College of Art and Design. “In reality, we need to reframe that situation. It’s a civil rights statute -- these are civil rights laws and regulations. And because we have become so fixated on whether we can punish the accused of wrongdoing, there’s this growing trend toward the other obligations and the other responsibilities falling to the wayside.”
A Turbulent Relationship
Lauren McCluskey began dating Rowland in September 2018. He convinced McCluskey and her peers that he was a 28-year-old community college student named Shawn Fields.
While Rowland was initially respectful, the relationship soured quickly. Rowland was controlling, telling McCluskey what she could and could not wear. He monitored her location both on and off campus, following her around in some cases. He informed her that she couldn’t go places or talk to certain people without him being present.
McCluskey’s friends took notice -- after a short period, McCluskey lost weight, her eyes appeared glassy and she ignored her academics. Her friends saw bruises on her body, which seemed to indicate Rowland was being physically abusive, too.
Near the end of the month, McCluskey told one of her close friends that Rowland intended to buy her a gun to ward off the advances of other men. Concerned, several of McCluskey’s friends reported the situation to a graduate assistant in one of the dormitories, who tried to take the information to her superiors, but she was rebuffed. Housing administrators were unconcerned and eventually said McCluskey needed her privacy.
In October, McCluskey discovered Rowland’s real name and searched the internet for him -- unearthing his criminal history. She intended to break up with him in a public place after returning to the campus after fall break, but when she got back to her room, she found Rowland peering in through her window. Rowland “effectively held [her] hostage in her dorm room by refusing to leave and aggressively choosing to stay through the night,” the lawsuit states. In an attempt to have him leave peacefully the next day, McCluskey loaned Rowland her car so he could run errands.
McCluskey’s mother helped arrange for campus security to escort McCluskey to retrieve the car, but the police department never followed up about potential domestic violence.
For days, McCluskey received nasty and threatening texts -- purportedly from Rowland’s friends. One said that he was suicidal, that he’d been in an accident and McCluskey needed to see him. McCluskey believed these were from Rowland and reported them to police continually.
But the campus police said initially they couldn’t help unless the situation “escalated,” the lawsuit states. McCluskey, after reporting the extortion attempt, went to the police station and spoke with multiple police officers in person, among them Officer Miguel Deras.
Deras has been singled out because the two investigations flagged that he had mishandled McCluskey’s case. He was later subject to training to better recognize the signs of dating violence. Deras subsequently flubbed another woman’s case after the training, The Salt Lake Tribune reported, but only got a warning letter in his personnel file, according to the newspaper. This is the only disciplinary action against an officer that has been made public after the university made changes within the department. The university said in December it will add staffers to both its Public Safety Department and its Behavioral Intervention Team, a counseling center group designed to handle students who are a threat to themselves or others who are worried about being harmed.
The president, Watkins, has declined to punish any of the officers involved with McCluskey’s call.
Campus police officers also weren’t properly trained to identify whether Rowland was on active parole. They checked Rowland’s criminal history, which did reveal his conviction but not his parole status. He was out on parole for the third time.
Later, Rowland impersonated a police officer in a text message in an apparent attempt to lure McCluskey to him. Rowland checked with an officer, who confirmed that the message was fake but did not investigate further. The same night McCluskey got the text message, she was on the phone with her mother walking from a class when Rowland grabbed her. Her parents heard her scream “no, no, no” before being disconnected. McCluskey was later found in the back of a car, dead. Campus police finally discovered Rowland’s status as a parolee and went to track him down, following him to a church close to the university, where he shot himself in the head.
McCluskey’s parents allege the university violated Title IX by ignoring their daughter’s pleas for help.
Brett Sokolow, president of the Association of Title IX Administrators, said he was unsure whether the Title IX arguments would hold up in court. The university could have banned Rowland from campus, but it did not have jurisdiction to punish him, as a nonstudent, and so Title IX may not apply, he said. While other officials knew about McCluskey’s plight, it is unclear when or whether the Title IX office learned about it, Sokolow said.
“I think this is new territory,” Sokolow said, adding he had never seen a murder in a Title IX lawsuit before.
The lawsuit also states that campus police have continually failed to investigate reports of sexual assault because the victims were women. In one case officers allegedly didn’t respond immediately to reports of a Peeping Tom who had sexually assaulted another woman on the campus three hours before.
Campus police operate “based on the assumption that Lauren, like most women, was unreasonable, hysterical, hypersensitive, paranoid, overreacting to the situation and not being truthful,” the lawsuit states.
Parker, from Ringling College, said that colleges and universities generally need to do more to improve their training around dating violence. Typically, most of the lessons around sexual assault are frontloaded in the beginning of the academic year, during orientation, and address consent when alcohol is involved, she said. This is an attempt to mitigate what is known as the “red zone,” the initial weeks of the first semester when most campus sexual assaults occur.
But equal attention needs to be given to partner violence, Parker said. Nearly one in five women in Utah will be the victim of dating violence -- some form of psychological, physical or sexual abuse by a partner -- in a single year, according to statistics from the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition.
“Utah’s first step needs to be how has this impacted their climate campus,” Parker said. “That’s the utmost important. One of their peers was murdered on campus -- their trainings need to address that.”
The campus remains shaken by the episode.
One student, Isaac Reese, wrote to the campus newspaper, The Daily Utah Chronicle, to say that the university “has a laundry list of inadequacies it must address.”
Reese called for Brophy’s firing. Under his watch, the department not only failed to prevent McCluskey’s death, but also was tone-deaf for including McCluskey’s name in an awards ceremony program honoring officers, Reese wrote.
The lawsuit was what the university “deserves,” Reese wrote.
“The administration has failed to take responsibility for their inaction,” he wrote. “This has forced Lauren’s parents to seek justice on their own, and rightfully so. However, they should not have to go through the legal hoops that the university has forced upon them in order for them to seek justice for Lauren. The university, administration, campus law enforcement, housing office and President Watkins should feel ashamed for their inaction and for their refusal to accept accountability for that inaction.”