SALT LAKE CITY — Saying the University of Utah has taken no responsibility for the death of their daughter and as a last resort to make the campus safer, the parents of Lauren McCluskey sued the school for $56 million Thursday.
Matt and Jill McCluskey say university police and campus housing officials failed to protect their daughter despite her repeated calls for help before her murder.
"I do not want to be in this world without Lauren, but, being stuck here, I have no choice but to try to make this world better," Matt McCluskey said.
The McCluskeys and their lawyers held a news conference Thursday announcing the civil rights lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City.
The 51-page complaint alleges U. police ignored Lauren McCluskey's reports of stalking, physical and emotional abuse, intimidation, dating violence and other behavior prohibited under Title IX. Attorney Jim McConkie said he hopes to prove "deliberate indifference" by the university.
"We had hoped for an adult conversation with the University of Utah administration, to work with them to build a safer future for all students," Matt McCluskey said. "Regrettably, the administration has chosen the path of defensiveness, denial and no accountability."
Lauren McCluskey, 21, was shot and killed on Oct. 22 near her campus dorm by Melvin Shawn Rowland, 37, a convicted sex offender who was on the Utah Sex Offender Registry at the time of the killing. Rowland and McCluskey had gone out on dates, but she soon discovered he had lied to her about his name and age.
When McCluskey found out who he really was, she told police that Rowland attempted to blackmail her by demanding money in exchange for not distributing intimate pictures of her.
From Oct. 10 until her death, McCluskey made multiple calls to the U. police department. She even called Salt Lake police in hopes of quicker action. But university police never conducted a full background check on Rowland, who had served many years in the Utah State Prison, and at least one call made by McCluskey to the officer assigned to her case went to voicemail because the officer was not on duty.
"Matt and I were shocked that the campus police and campus housing response to Lauren's cries for help were incompetent, unaware, skeptical of her, complacent and uncaring," Jill McCluskey said.
In one instance, she said, U. housing did nothing when her daughter's friends reported that Rowland talked about bringing a gun to campus, and then "he brought that gun to campus and killed her with it."
"That is just one of the many failures that resulted in Lauren's death," Jill McCluskey said. "If any one of these failures did not occur, Lauren would be alive today."
McConkie said Lauren McCluskey's death was preventable and occurred because the U. failed to respond to pleas for help.
"The university never took these complaints seriously enough to even talk to her ex-boyfriend or her ex-boyfriend's associates," he said.
A three-member independent review panel found numerous mistakes were made by the university and by campus police, but concluded that it was impossible to say whether McCluskey's death could have been prevented.
McConkie said the panel made 30 recommendations for the university to "fix” the system that failed Lauren, yet University of Utah President Ruth Watkins said that the university's report into the case does not offer any reason to believe this tragedy could have been prevented.
“Her statement made me physically ill," Jill McCluskey said.
She tried to work with Watkins to remedy the system and hold individuals accountable, she said, but the president never responded to her email. That is when she realized the only way to improve campus safety was to file a lawsuit, calling it a “last resort to affect positive change.”
"If the university must pay a large amount for failing to protect Lauren, it will be more likely to believe women and act with urgency when their female students ask for help," Jill McCluskey said.
McConkie said juries take seriously cases in which life and death are treated "casually" and are "willing to step forward and say, 'This figure is large and it will put a stop to this kind of nonsense."
The McCluskeys said that any money from the lawsuit would be placed in the Lauren McCluskey Foundation, a nonprofit organization that honors their daughter’s legacy by supporting charitable work that promotes campus safety, amateur athletics and animal welfare.
McConkie said the McCluskeys had hoped the university would have "locked arms with them" after the review panel's report to fund the family's foundation and become a voice for campus safety nationwide.
The U. failed to investigate whether Rowland was on parole, and didn't try to contact him or with anyone who might have information about him, according to McConkie. The school also didn't try to determine whether Rowland was behind the harassment and attempted blackmail.
He also said the U. failed to use any reasonable means to protect Lauren, make any plan to prevent further abuse or inform her about the rights and remedies available to her.
In addition to the university, defendants named in the lawsuit are the U. Department of Housing and Residential Education, the U. Department of Public Safety, police Chief Dale Brophy, police Sgt. Kory Newbold, detective Kayla Dallof, officer Miguel Deras, and U. housing employees Todd Justensen, Heather McCarthy and Emily Thompson.