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Shawn Vestal: Foundation named for slain Pullman woman moves ahead on campus safety initiatives

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 3, 2020

Jill McCluskey is pictured in her daughter Lauren’s bedroom in Pullman with a photograph of the girl at age 3.  (DAN PELLE)
Jill McCluskey is pictured in her daughter Lauren’s bedroom in Pullman with a photograph of the girl at age 3. (DAN PELLE)

It’s a strange time to be thinking of normal times and “normal” problems on college campuses.

But even as the coronavirus disrupts everything, and as Black Lives Matter protests have refocused the attention and energy of the nation, the efforts of two Washington State University professors to improve campus safety for women – undertaken after the murder of their daughter at the University of Utah – is moving forward.

The Lauren McCluskey Foundation, named for the Pullman native who died at the hands of a stalker following red flags that were repeatedly ignored or overlooked by university officials, announced this week that it was hiring its first employee and establishing office space in the WSU Research Park.

Those steps further the mission of the foundation, which has raised roughly $100,000 for its work toward improving campus safety for young women, among other priorities. Lauren’s parents – Jill McCluskey, a professor and director of the School of Economic Sciences at WSU, and Matt McCluskey, a professor of physics – see it as a good start, but are hoping their legal challenges to the University of Utah and state of Utah over Lauren’s death result in settlements that give the foundation a much bigger bankroll.

“We started very small and it was 100% volunteer-run, based on small donations from people who care about these causes,” Jill McCluskey said this week. “Over time, we have been able to get enough money to be a hire a part-time executive director and also rent an office at the research park.”

Linda Mittelhammer, a longtime bank official in Pullman and student experience coordinator for international students at WSU, as well as a family friend of the McCluskeys, was named as the first executive director of the foundation. Jill McCluskey said it will be a roughly half-time position.

“We are so very fortunate to have Linda as the foundation director,” she said in a statement. “We expect the foundation to thrive as we move to the next level.”

The foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, has three initiatives: improving campus safety to prevent crimes such as Lauren’s murder, supporting animal well-being and supporting amateur athletics. In addition to foundation fundraising, the McCluskeys have helped organize fundraising for athletic scholarships and the Whitman County Humane Society.

Jill McCluskey was killed Oct. 22, 2018, on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City, following a series of red flags raised with campus officials and police that went stunningly ignored. She was a 21-year-old A student who ran track for the Utes.

In the weeks before her death, Jill, her friends and her family approached university housing and police officials more than 20 times to raise concerns about the threatening behavior of a man she had briefly dated. In most of the cases, the officials did nothing; campus police repeatedly passed the buck or simply did not follow up on leads Lauren provided to them herself.

Among the many appalling examples of the case’s handling, one campus officer investigating her case downloaded explicit photos that were being used to extort Lauren to his personal phone, then showed them to other officers and bragged he got to look at them whenever he wanted, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

The McCluskeys have filed a $56 million lawsuit against the state of Utah, and have said they will use any settlement to fund the foundation.

They have also filed a federal lawsuit against the university under Title IX, the federal law prohibiting discrimination against women in education and other programs, that has the potential to dramatically expand the responsibility of universities to ensure the safety of students on campus.

Among the efforts underway to improve safety for young women on campuses is Lauren’s Promise – a syllabus statement that professors can place on their syllabi that says, “I will listen and believe you if someone is threatening you.”

Around 35 universities have adopted the statements, Jill McCluskey said. It is a simple, powerful expression of something that so many people failed to do in the weeks before Lauren was killed.

“I just wish a professor had said they would listen and believe Lauren,” she said. “If you state that, maybe someone will come forward and say something.”

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