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Shawn Vestal: Pullman couple presses to turn daughter’s murder into a movement for campus change

Jill McCluskey stands at the entrance to her Pullman home with a memorial cross to her daughter, Lauren, who was killed in October 2018 by a man  she dated while studying at the University of Utah. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Jill McCluskey stands at the entrance to her Pullman home with a memorial cross to her daughter, Lauren, who was killed in October 2018 by a man she dated while studying at the University of Utah. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Her images fill the home.

Here is Lauren as a 3-year-old, hoisting a watering can in the yard. There she is as an older child, embracing her white cat, Victory. Here she is in her blue Pullman High track uniform, and there she is at her first track meet, age 8, leaving the rest of the field in her dust.

Lauren smiles from a photo on a plaque at the front door, from images lining the walls of the home and from the frames of photos in her bedroom at the top of the stairs, a room draped with medals and ribbons from a track and field career that took her from Pullman to the University of Utah.

“This is her at 11,” says Jill McCluskey, pointing to a photo of young Lauren approaching the high-jump bar. “She could jump her own height.”

Lauren McCluskey has been gone for 16 months now, killed by a man who stalked, harassed, threatened and extorted her for weeks before shooting her on the University of Utah campus. But her presence is everywhere in the McCluskey home, and her parents are doing all they can to make sure their daughter – and the litany of institutional failures that preceded her murder – is not forgotten.

Jill McCluskey and her husband, Matt, hope that Lauren’s case becomes a spur to improve the way colleges and universities nationwide respond to dating violence and sexual harassment. They have filed a $56 million federal lawsuit against the University of Utah under Title IX, the federal law prohibiting discrimination against women in education and other federally funded programs.

The suit argues that, in failing to respond to more than 20 complaints in the days before Lauren’s murder, the university acted in a discriminatory fashion that was part of a pattern of treating women differently based on gender stereotypes, not taking sexual harassment seriously, and failing to implement policies and procedures to respond to harassment and protect students. If it succeeds, it has the potential to significantly increase the scope of responsibility universities face in protecting students in such cases.

“I hope for it to have a national impact,” Jill McCluskey said last week in an interview. “If the state of Utah has to pay a lot of money, I think schools will not let this happen in the future.”

Lauren McCluskey had dated the man briefly, but after finding out that he’d lied to her about his name, age and criminal background, she broke it off – which was followed by a series of escalating threats and harassment. Police repeatedly dismissed or failed to act on her complaints, and never investigated the man or took steps to protect Lauren, the suit claims.

At times, the response of the University of Utah campus police as described in the suit veers into the tragically absurd. In one instance, Lauren told police her harasser had been sending her threatening texts for days, and had extorted her out of $1,000 by threatening to release compromising images of her.

Though the man was not a student at the University of Utah, a campus officer searched the student database, found a different man with a similar name and told Lauren he “seems like a good guy” – only to have Lauren correct him, do a quick Google search, and show the officer what she’d already found on her own.

“She said, ‘Well, look on my phone – he’s a sex offender,’ ” Jill said. “She was basically solving the case herself. … I can think of 10 different ways that, if just one person had lifted a finger, she would still be alive.”

‘No effort was made’

Jill and Matt McCluskey met at the University of California, Berkeley, and they were each hired at Washington State University in 1998. They’ve lived in Pullman since, where they raised Lauren and her younger brother, Ryan, while working at WSU. Jill is a Regents professor and director of the School of Economic Sciences, and Matt is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Lauren was athletic from a young age, and the medals from her track exploits still line her bedroom walls. She was a state champion high jumper for Pullman High, and attended Utah on a track scholarship.

She was a 21-year-old A student in her senior year, studying communications. She’d interned one summer at her grandparents’ living community in the Spokane Valley, where she took photos and wrote stories about the residents.

She would have turned 23 last Wednesday.

Lauren met Melvin Rowland in early September 2018, and they dated briefly. After weeks of his threatening, controlling behavior, she discovered that he had given her a false name and age, and hidden the fact that he was on parole for two felony sex crimes and was a registered sex offender.

She broke it off, but Rowland’s threats, harassment and extortion escalated over the course of 12 days, until Oct. 22, when he grabbed her on campus as she talked to Jill on the phone – Jill heard her cry, “No! No! No! No!” – dragged her to a car, forced her inside and shot her seven times.

During the days prior, Lauren had contacted university officials repeatedly, but they didn’t do anything to keep Lauren safe, or to investigate criminal complaints for which 21-year-old Lauren offered them seemingly solid evidence, the suit argues.

“Lauren’s death arose from a set of circumstances that should have alerted the University and Individual Defendants to the fact that one of their students was in extreme peril of being seriously harmed or killed as a result of domestic violence or dating violence,” the lawsuit says.

“In addition to direct reports of domestic violence and dating violence, the classic warning signs of such behavior were repeatedly reported to the University, but no investigation occurred, no plans were developed or implemented and no effort was made to take any meaningful action reasonably calculated to end the harassment or to otherwise prohibit Melvin Rowland from having ongoing access to the University’s campus.”

‘That cannot be the law’

Christine Durham, a former chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court, is one of the attorneys representing the McCluskeys in the case. She said the suit – as well as the national attention to the tragic circumstances of Lauren’s death – seeks to build on an evolving legal framework under Title IX.

For many years, for an institution to be liable for violating the federal law, it had to be based on actions taken by institutional representatives. In 1999, the Supreme Court ruled, in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, that an institution could be held liable for failing to prevent student-on-student sexual harassment if officials were “deliberately indifferent to sexual harassment, of which they have actual knowledge, that harassment is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victims of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school.”

The McCluskey case attempts to apply that standard to harassment by a nonstudent, arguing that University of Utah officials exhibited deliberate indifference at every turn.

“From the very earliest complaint, had the university intervened, conducted an investigation, and used its authority to protect Lauren, the ultimate outcome … could have been prevented,” Durham said in an interview.

The university acknowledged there were problems with its response to Lauren, but President Ruth Watkins has said there is no “reason to believe this tragedy could have been prevented.”

The university commissioned a review of the case that made 30 recommendations for improved campus safety, and noted that school officials had not followed university policy in responding to Lauren’s complaints. It has also expanded its spending on campus safety, as well as public relations, in response to the case.

In a motion to dismiss the case, attorneys for the state of Utah argue the university is not liable for the murder, though the university regretted that it had “missed the opportunity to help her more.” The motion also challenges the basis for bringing the claim under Title IX, saying that such claims have been reserved for actions carried out by employees or others “substantially under the control” of the university.

“In this case, Ms. McCluskey’s killer, Rowland, was not a University employee, student, or volunteer. He had no University affiliation whatsoever,” the motion says. “Extending liability to educational institutions in situations where they lack substantial control over harassers and criminals like Rowland would constitute an unprecedented and unwarranted expansion of the implied cause of action under Title IX, which would unjustly subject all educational institutions to liability for all acts of dating-related violence occurring on campus, regardless of the parties involved.”

Durham said the university’s position, if successful, would absolve institutions of responsibility in far-reaching ways. It would establish that “if someone comes onto campus and commits sexual assault and sexual violence, and if the university knows about it, that the university has absolutely no obligation to intervene or protect students,” she said. “That simply cannot be the law.”

‘She told me she loved me’

The suit is one of several ways Lauren’s case is already provoking change on campuses.

Utah lawmakers have proposed and passed legislation intended to improve student safety. The case was one significant factor prompting Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to draft new rules emphasizing that schools must address domestic violence, dating violence and stalking as forms of gender discrimination under Title IX, according to the New York Times.

The McCluskeys have created a “syllabus sticker” intended for use on college syllabi that reads: “I Made Lauren’s Promise: I Will Listen and Believe You if Someone is Threatening You.” The stickers are being used by professors at more than 30 institutions around the country, Jill said. And they’ve formed the Lauren McCluskey Foundation, and intend to direct any award or settlement from the case to it.

“I think it helps me if I try to make things better,” Jill McCluskey said. “That is what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to make things better for others in her name.”

It helps the McCluskeys deal with a grief that is unimaginable. So much about it is so wrenching – from the heartbreak of losing their child to the shock of discovering the repeated failures of the officials tasked with protecting her. But they are pushing forward to bring about change, and to keep their daughter’s memory as alive in the mind of the public as it is for them.

In even the most tragic corners of the experience, there is room for Jill to preserve the best of her daughter in memory. Even in that final phone call.

“It will always be there that I heard her say, ‘No, no, no,’ ” Jill said. “We also had a great conversation. She told me she loved me in that conversation.”