It has been five years since the death of student-athlete Lauren McCluskey on the University of Utah’s campus.
Each year, near the Oct. 22 anniversary, the university and McCluskey Family Foundation host a 5K run/walk in Lauren’s memory and to raise awareness about interpersonal violence. This year’s event attracted about 200 participants to the McCarthey Family Track and Field on Saturday, a day before the anniversary of Lauren’s death.
“That’s the reason that we’re here, but it’s beyond that. We’re trying to make a difference,” said Jill McCluskey, who attended the event with her husband Matt and spoke at the race’s start. “We’re trying to make a difference in the culture and how people respond when someone is being threatened. I want to thank all the volunteers, everyone who puts so much effort out and I ask you all to please make Lauren’s promise—I will listen and believe you if someone is threatening you.”
Since McCluskey’s murder, the campus community has engaged in a multi-year process of grieving and an investigation of what went wrong while working to hold safety leaders and university administrators accountable. The university also settled a lawsuit filed by the McCluskey family.
Over those five years, the U’s approach to campus safety has been transformed. Nearly 80% of sworn officers in the university’s Department of Public Safety are new to the U. University Police are trained in lethality assessments and what questions not to ask victim-survivors. Housing and Residential Education has embedded “community advisors” specifically trained to identify and intervene in cases of interpersonal violence in university residence halls.
The University of Utah has implemented or is in the process of completing 37 specific changes to policies and procedures—29 recommendations in the wake of Lauren McCluskey’s death on Oct. 22, 2018, and eight after Zhifan Dong’s death on Feb. 11, 2022.
As the details of missed steps, inexperience and a toxic university Police Department culture were revealed, U leaders focused on rebuilding the Department of Public Safety. But other changes have been made as well:
- The department hosted the first campus safety conference in March 2023, with a presentation from Jill McCluskey, Lauren’s mother, founder of the McCluskey Foundation and professor and director of Washington State University’s School of Economic Sciences.
- The U’s Racist and Bias Incident Response Team members analyze and report cases of sexism, homophobia, hate speech and hate crimes as they are notified to alert the campus community to possible threats on the Incidents & Updates website.
- A new Clery Act coordinator is dedicated to tracking and regularly reporting to the public cases of dating violence, stalking and other crimes on campus. The U’s Clery coordinator has also organized a Clery committee of his peers at other USHE schools and revived the Pac-12’s Clery committee to discuss best practices.
- The Public Safety Department also maintains new campus crime dashboards and a “heat map” with nearly real-time reporting of incidents across campus.
“I have a new team of individuals who are here for the right reasons,” said Keith Squires, chief safety officer, who also spoke at the event. Squires served on the committee that investigated the U’s response in Lauren’s case. “They care. They will do anything they can to prevent another tragedy from happening and to keep all of you safe from harm.”
Chris Linder, director of the McCluskey Center for Violence Prevention, said in her remarks at the race that her center is working to stop violence before it happens. The center was renamed for Lauren after her death.
“I’m proud of our community for coming together and I still feel sad about the reasons why we’re here,” Linder said. “We have excellent resources on campus who are doing a much better job responding to violence after it happens and so our role in the community is to try and interrupt harm by helping people understand what harmful behavior is before it even escalates to something as severe as what Lauren experienced.”
Lauren Rives and Chloe Shewell, representing ASUU, played a key role in organizing this year’s race and, on behalf of U’s student government, shared Lauren’s Promise and expressed support for violence prevention and an overall safer campus.
“We are here today as students, athletes, activists, friends, family and a community to honor and remember Lauren by committing to end violence,” Shewell said.
A full list of the changes implemented at the U can be found in the FAQ section of this page: https://attheu.utah.edu/facultystaff/mourning-the-death-of-zhifandong-a-commitment-to-improve/
While McCluskey and Dong’s cases were covered extensively by the media and included financial settlements with their families, the university also mourns the deaths of other members of the community who have died as a result of relationship and sexual violence, including:
- Zhifan Dong, 19, an international student from China who hadn’t yet declared a major, was murdered on Feb. 11, 2022, by her boyfriend at an off-campus motel room in Salt Lake City.
- Sarah Hawley, 27, a family medicine resident at the University of Utah Hospital, was murdered at her home near the U campus on Jan. 27, 2019, by a long-time boyfriend with whom she lived.
- Mackenzie Lueck, 23, was murdered on June 17, 2019, off-campus in Salt Lake City by someone she met on an online dating site.
- Lauren McCluskey, 21, a senior communications major and track athlete, was murdered on Oct. 22, 2018, in a parking lot on campus by a former dating partner.
- Katherine Peralta, 23, a staff member at a research laboratory in the University of Utah’s Research Park, was murdered on Dece. 29, 2016, by her husband in the parking lot of her workplace.
Sadly, other University of Utah students have died over the past seven years under tragic and violent circumstances, too. ChenWei Guo, a 23-year-old computer science major from China, was killed in an October 2017 carjacking. And football player Ty Jordan died in December 2020, the victim of an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound near his home in Denton, Texas. Nine months later, his friend and fellow player Aaron Lowe was shot and killed outside a Salt Lake City house party in September 2021.