SALT LAKE CITY — "I will listen and believe you if someone is threatening you."
These simple words, printed on stickers recently donated to the Lauren McCluskey Foundation, are a summation of "Lauren's Promise" — a vow that educators at all levels, but particularly in higher education, can include on their course syllabi to let students know they're ready to listen and to help.
Jill McCluskey believes such words could have made a difference for her daughter, University of Utah student-athlete Lauren McCluskey, who was murdered in 2018 by a man she'd dated briefly. The murder happend on the U. campus despite numerous contacts with campus police in the preceding days. "We must all take action to ensure that this never happens again," the promise reads.
"Professors can make a difference," Jill McCluskey told KSL.com. "One of the problems was that it seems like people weren't listening to Lauren, and that it might have helped if she'd had more people involved that were listening to her."
Jill McCluskey developed Lauren's Promise in 2019, in time for the fall semester. She wrote the pledge specifically for Washington State University, where she teaches and directs the School of Economic Sciences. The school's student government in November called for the promise to be included on syllabi throughout the university.
The promise has since been adopted by faculty members at more than 30 colleges and universities, including schools in Canada and Australia. "It's just been really inspiring," Jill McCluskey said.
The promise includes links to school-specific crisis resources and encourages students to call 911 if they are in immediate danger. Jill McCluskey works with faculty members across the country to tailor the promise for their school.
We're working on #LaurensPromise stickers. This comes from a syllabus statement that professors can make so students know that they will be believed & heard if they need help. Profs from >30 universities have committed to this. I've been told that students have responded. pic.twitter.com/uEFna4T0HB— Jill McCluskey (@jjmccluskey) June 15, 2020
Jadrian Wooten is one such professor who has adopted the pledge and now includes it in his syllabi at Penn State University's Department of Economics. Jill McCluskey was his adviser as he worked for his doctorate in economics at Washington State.
At Penn State, Wooten learned about Lauren's murder from a former student assistant who had gone to Utah to pursue her law degree. Knowing he'd been advised by Lauren’s mother, the woman messaged Wooten in the early-morning hours of October 23, 2018, about the email U. officials had sent the campus community. "Me and the other people in the office," Wooten said, "kind of just processed it all together as things were coming out."
The following year, Wooten heard about Lauren's Promise from Jill McCluskey on Twitter.
Wooten said faculty members are trained each semester on what to do if a student reports dangerous or abusive behavior to them. But students, he thought, were unlikely to think of their professors as resources in dangerous situations. "How would anybody even come up with the idea to approach me as a professor?" he thought back then. "I teach these 700-person classes — one person out of 700, why would they want to come to me?"
He realized that Lauren's Promise was "an easy way to let them know that, if you need somebody to talk to, I can be that person."
"If students are going through something that difficult, if I can make things even marginally easier, it's worth my time."
Back in Pullman, Washington, the McCluskey Foundation has begun mailing its new stickers for free to interested professors and educators across the country. "It could be for anyone who wants to listen and help," Jill McCluskey said. She envisions the stickers being worn by teachers, displayed in classrooms and even as bumper stickers.
Bottom line: She wants threatened students to know they'll be heard and believed.
Jill McCluskey and her husband, Matt, have long alleged that wasn't the case at the University of Utah in the days leading up to Lauren's murder. They have now filed two separate lawsuits targeting the university, its police force and the state of Utah, arguing that Lauren's death was preventable and much more could have been done. Recent reporting by The Salt Lake Tribune that the officer in charge of Lauren's case showed explicit photos of her to co-workers has only heightened scrutiny of the school's response.
The university's attorneys have filed a motion to dismiss the first suit, and mediation between the university and the McCluskeys was unsuccessful.
"We have an outstanding legal team, with a former state Supreme Court justice (Christine Durham) in the group," Jill McCluskey said, "so I'm pretty confident that we will do well in that lawsuit."
She hopes one day to use proceeds from the suits to benefit the Lauren McCluskey Foundation and bring efforts like Lauren's Promise to schools nationwide. "We personally, Matt and I, have so much sadness missing her. But in working to make change, it helps us, and we hope that this work really does save lives and makes things better for all young women."