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Parents of murdered student Lauren McCluskey sue U. for $56 million

FILE - In this Nov. 10, 2018, file photo, a photograph of University of Utah student and track athlete Lauren McCluskey, who was fatally shot on campus, is projected on the video board before the start of an NCAA college football game between Oregon and Utah in Salt Lake City. The parents of Lauren McCluskey say their formerly shy daughter was brimming with confidence and excited to graduate before she was fatally shot on campus. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

SALT LAKE CITY — The parents of a murdered University of Utah student, Lauren McCluskey, are suing the school for $56 million, arguing the U. failed to protect their daughter.

Jim McConkie, the Salt Lake City attorney representing Jill and Matt McCluskey, said the suit accuses the university of violating Lauren’s Title IX rights by ignoring her reports of stalking, sextortion and intimidation.

In addition to guaranteeing female athletes have the same opportunities afforded their male counterparts, Title IX also addresses sexual harassment at institutions that receive federal education funds.

At an emotional news conference on Thursday, Jill McCluskey said she had repeatedly asked University of Utah President Ruth Watkins to re-evaluate the school’s response to her daughter’s murder, to no avail. Eventually, she said, she realized the only way to improve campus safety was to file suit.

“A responsible university responds with urgency to ONE phone call,” Matt McCluskey added.

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Matt McCluskey and Jill McCluskey hold hands during a press conference about a lawsuit they are filing against the University of Utah, alleging the University failed to protect their daughter Lauren McCluskey, who was murdered, at the Siegfried and Jensen Law Office in Murray on Thursday, June 27, 2019. Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“The University of Utah is on the wrong side of history in how they handled Lauren’s case and how they responded to her death,” Jill McCluskey said.

Jill McCluskey said it’s imperative that institutions believe women who express concern about their safety and take steps to address their concerns.

“Lauren was a beautiful woman in all respects,” her father, Matt McCluskey, said. “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.”

Lauren McCluskey, 21, was murdered Oct. 22, 2018, after she broke up with her boyfriend of about a month when she learned he lied about his age and identity.

Lauren discovered her ex-boyfriend was a convicted sex offender and reported that information to the university, her parents said. But the U. failed to recognize the warning signs of dating violence and did not take steps to either end the harassment or block Melvin Shawn Rowland from campus, they claimed.

“They tried to minimize her and have her go away,” Jill McCluskey said. “They were not caring. They were not helpful.”

“We had hoped to have an adult conversation with the University of Utah administration to build a safer future for all their students. Regrettably, the university has chose a path of defensiveness, denial and no accountability… We cannot stand by while students are imperiled,” Matt McCluskey said.

In a statement, University of Utah President Ruth Watkins wrote:

We will respond to the McCluskey family’s lawsuit through the appropriate channels, but I want to express again our deep sorrow for the loss of Lauren McCluskey. Our hearts go out to her family and friends.

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. We continue to address the recommendations identified by the independent review of the university’s safety policies, procedures and resources, and we are making ongoing improvements designed to protect our students and our entire campus community.

The independent review referenced by Watkins found a series of potentially missed warning signs in the weeks leading up to McCluskey’s murder. However, Watkins has said there’s no reason to believe the crime could have been prevented. Rowland took his own life as police closed in during an hours-long manhunt after McCluskey’s death. While the university has promised to act on the findings in the report, no one has been disciplined for their role in the case.

The McCluskeys say any proceeds from their lawsuit will be put toward the Lauren McCluskey Foundation, a charity that supports campus safety, amateur athletes and animal welfare.

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