Family sues University of Utah for $56 million for failing to protect student's life from sex offender ex-boyfriend
A heartbroken family has sued the University of Utah after they failed to prevent the death of their daughter despite multiple warning reports to school police. 21-year-old Lauren McCluskey was shot dead on campus by ex-boyfriend Melvin Shawn Rowland before he took his own life on October 22, 2018. The shooting took place a month after she broke up with him upon finding out he had lied about his name, age, and the fact that he was a registered sex offender, the Daily Mail reported.
University officials failed to protect McCluskey or take responsibility in her death, said a lawsuit against the school filed by the family Thursday. While the lawsuit stated the family is seeking $56 million in damages, they said all the proceeds would go to a trust focused on improving campus safety.
McCluskey alerted campus police more than 20 times to report concerns about her boyfriend, who was extorting her for money during her final days. That said, the suit also accuses officials of missing obvious signs of dating violence and barely making any effort to stop Rowland from harassing McCluskey or ban him from campus altogether. Furthermore, the victim's friends also reported concerns multiple times to dormitory officials.
During a news conference Thursday, Lauren's mother Jill McCluskey broke into tears as she remarked how the university had failed to protect her daughter. "They tried to minimize her and have her go away, they were not caring, they were not helpful," she said. Meanwhile, Lauren's father Matthew McCluskey said the school had chosen a path of "defensiveness, denial and no accountability."
"Lauren’s death was preventable," James McConkie, the attorney representing the McCluskeys, said in a statement. "The murder occurred because of the University of Utah’s repeated failure to respond to Lauren’s multiple and continuing pleas for help." University of Utah president Ruth Watkins expressed "deep sorrow" for McCluskey's death and said the college would respond to the lawsuit through the court system.
"While there are differences in how we would characterize some of the events leading to Lauren's tragic murder, let me say again that we share the McCluskey family's commitment to improving campus safety," Watkins said. It was found the school had missed warning signs of dating abuse before McCluskey was found shot to death in a car after returning from a night class, an independent review commissioned by the university determined. Furthermore, Watkins agreed there was no reason to believe Rowland couldn't be stopped.
While the university vowed to act on the report's findings, authorities are yet to discipline anyone. About a month before her death, McCluskey began to file reports about Rowland, with her friends telling housing officials he was controlling and talking about guns. But those reports never reached law enforcement owing to technical issues while submitting them and "concerns" about intruding into McCluskey's private life.
Jill said Rowland had borrowed her daughter's car and refused to return it to her dorm on October 10, and so she asked campus police to accompany her in retrieving the same. “I’m worried he’s dangerous. … He is a sex offender. … I’m worried someone is going to hurt her," she told officials before a campus security escort went along and got her car back.
McCluskey told campus police October 12 that Rowland's friends were trying to lure her off-campus with fake texts. In the following days, she also reported he was extorting her, threatening he would release private photos of her online, and that she had already paid him $1,000 in the process.
What's more? Rowland later posed as a police officer and left her a message in a bid to get her out of her university. Nonetheless, that report also failed to raise any serious alarms. At one point, campus police told her they could not do much without a "direct physical threat." Investigators working on the reports also failed to discover he was a recent parolee and was registered as a sex offender.
The lawsuit alleges campus police "refused to respond to the reports based on the assumption that Lauren, like most women, was unreasonable, hysterical, hypersensitive, paranoid, overreacting to the situation and not being truthful." The University of Utah has now pledged to take the case seriously and run more frequent checks to identify ex-felons or ex-convicts. In their efforts to strengthen campus safety, they are hiring more officers, increasing training, and streamlining communications between housing officials and police.
That said, McCluskey won a track scholarship after an outstanding high school career in Pullman, Washington. She went on to finish second in the state for the 100-meter hurdles and fifth in high jump in her senior year. Lauren McCluskey ranks 10th all-time at Utah in the pentathlon.