On Feb. 12, 2019, a report was released by the University of Utah leadership, including U President Ruth Watkins, to propose an update regarding 30 campus safety recommendations made by an independent review team to the U’s Board of Trustees. The recommendations came as a result of the independent review team’s investigation into the death of student Lauren McCluskey.
“Increasing safety on campus has been a significant focus of recent months,” President Watkins said during the meeting to outline the 30 recommendations. “We must make an unceasing and complete commitment to this responsibility. This commitment is not a one-time response, but an important part of our institutional culture going forward.”
The release of the recommendations follows a thorough examination of campus safety issues. The issues range from procedural concerns with campus security and law enforcement to prevention programs to foster a more welcoming environment with a better-informed campus community. Along with these recommendations, other groups on campus are also working on ways to improve campus safety and understanding from domestic to race issues.
Safety Task Force
A presidential safety task force was put in place in 2017, and outlined in broad scope the large issues of campus safety. After making its recommendations, the group was dissolved. President Watkins decided to put together a new safety task force. That current iteration of the Safety Task Force was initiated in Oct. 2018 after McCluskey’s death on campus. Her death revealed that there were still some problems with campus safety that needed attention. The task force was not necessarily formed as a direct result, but it was necessary to make improvements.
Twenty members were selected to serve on the task force, including the Dean of Students, University of Utah Police Department, emergency management, child care services, hospital and clinics administration, the Office of Equal Opportunity and many others. The entire task force has held bi-weekly meetings since the beginning of January with subcommittees meeting more frequently. They plan on releasing a report, different than the report that already outlined the 30 recommendations, by May in time for their recommendations to be ready to begin implementation in May or June. Their recommendations should be more narrowly tailored than the ones outlined by the previous task force.
Kaitlin McLean, a member of the task force, said “As the ASUU Senate Chair, I am sometimes lucky enough to be a voice for the student body, and when the opportunity to sit on this task force was presented, I felt it was a place I could make sure that student interests were taken into consideration. In every university-wide conversation, the student voice matters, and I knew that I would be ready and willing to speak up in the campus safety conversation.”
McLean’s subcommittee is focused on the training and education of campus community members and right now is drafting and proposing a campus safety statement to be included on all university syllabi that would have a link to the SafeU website, the UUPD phone number and how to access training videos and enroll in safety-related text alerts. “Primarily I hope to start serious, tangible progress in the area of making sure that existing resources reach the students, staff and faculty that want or need them. Then, I hope we make headway in identifying new training to fill the campus-wide gaps in safety-related knowledge,” said McLean.
Connor Morgan, student body president, is another member of the task force. He is part of the Best Practices subcommittee looking at issues concerning the Behavioral Intervention Team (BIT) to increase its efficiency. They are also looking at guest policies, types of security that can be added and how they can keep the conversation of safety going. In order to come up with the best policies, they have been looking at other universities in the state, in the Pac-12 and even across the country to see what they do and if it can be translated to the U. “It’s not like there wasn’t a focus on safety — just an update,” Morgan said.
Morgan’s leadership in the executive branch of ASUU has lent a big platform for promoting campus safety. He likes what the BYU president said: “Campus is our home and our home should be safe.”
As far as the hate speech that has been displayed on campus recently, the U disavows such speech, but it fringes on First Amendment rights. The U can implement counter-programming to fight against it as well as offer support to students affected while finding the balance between recognition of the speech without giving too much exposure.
Currently, there are 30 previous recommendations about safety that have been implemented, are being implemented or will be implemented. As far as Morgan’s perspective on how this process is going he said, “It seems everyone is acting in good faith and making progress towards completing them.” He is also impressed with President Watkins and her office and administration at the U. “They really do care,” Morgan said, pointing to the fact they reached out to the family immediately after McCluskey’s shooting. Morgan recognizes that students seem to have a belief that the U doesn’t care, but that is far from the truth.
McLean also expressed her belief in the U and said, “I have no doubt at all the university is fully committed to the safety of students as a top priority. I’d like students to know that they have people fighting for them at every level of the university, and if they want to get involved they can reach out to the Dean of Students office, ASUU or people in their departments.” Morgan said, “From my perspective as a student, they are acting on the utmost urgency.”
Morgan wants students to know “the University of Utah has really cared about campus safety,” and that even after this task force is dissolved in May, that the conversation of safety will never stop. McLean is “proud to say that I’ve been a small part of that effort.”
Interpersonal Violence or Healthy Relationships Working Group
The Interpersonal Violence or Healthy Relationships Working Group was also initiated this semester, separate from the Safety Task Force, but with the goal to address a different kind of violence on campus. McLean is also a part of this group. It is a group of campus and community experts on domestic violence, IPV, sexual assault and related topics with the goal to create an educational plan to create ongoing dialogue on campus about healthy relationships and warning signs of a toxic relationship. McLean said, “The greatest part of that group is the campus researchers and community leaders that are true experts in specific areas, and now we are trying to find the best ways to disseminate that expertise to everyone on campus.”
The group is new, but plans on expanding and spreading awareness. They are currently looking into bringing a speaker to campus and maybe developing workshops and lecture series. The group was started by students from ASUU and It’s On Us, primarily, and later President Watkins’ office became involved. After the involvement of Watkins’ office, they invited the rest of the experts to join. “Their help has been fantastic,” McLean said.
University of Utah Police Department
The U police have been key when it comes to safety on campus. Sixteenof the 30 recommendations for safety specifically included the UUPD. They have been cooperative with the groups on campus and have demonstrated willingness to improve their practices and policies.
There are already changes occurring, such as conducting interviews with victims in private places, adopting new policies to allow for information sharing, reacting within the same day to reports made that may affect personal safety, among others. There are still changes to come, and with new narrowly tailored recommendations coming soon, it is likely that even more change will be seen by students.
University communications director Chris Nelson said that this is all part of a continuing process of improving campus safety. “We can’t 100 percent mitigate the risks for students as an open campus community. What we are striving for in general and specifically with the 30 recommendations is to set higher standards for our campus community, whether that be with faculty, staff, students, housing and counseling services.”
Nelson added that the largest issue facing the UUPD is a shortage of personnel. “Right now, we are budgeted to have 40 certified officers, and another 100 security staff members working on campus. We have a few open police officer positions so recruitment is a top priority.”
Anti-Racism Task Force Mobilized
Another immediate campus safety concern regards the University Anti-Racism Task Force. This task force was established following multiple racially charged vandalism incidents in 2016 and 2017. The original university statement affirming the role of the task force was to work on creating and implementing campus-wide programs to improve dialogue and understanding across different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
In January, a series of stickers and a banner were posted on campus promoting organizations described as white supremacist by the Anti-Defamation League. The Anti-Racism Task Force was assembled in response to previous campus incidents of this nature. Yet, in subsequent weeks no official statement or mobilization of the task force has taken place.
Dr. David Derezotes of the College of Social Work is currently serving as Chair of the Anti-Racism Task Force. While not a member of the task force at its inception, Derezotes described the proceedings of the initial committee as a “facilitation of meaningful conversation.” The 70-80 members during the 2017-18 academic year deliberated over whether there was a racial problem on campus and what actions by the university should be taken in response. Derezotes described it as a worthwhile identification of where the campus community stood, but no formal recommendations were ever submitted to university administration. The focus of the task force has shifted towards implementation. “It’s not enough to just have well-meaning people get together,” said Derezotes. “What’s important is what we can do now and how can we do it.”
For the 2018-19 academic year, the task force now is made up of around 25 members, distributed among staff, faculty and students at the university. The task force decided that the best use of their resources was in addressing a single campus racial issue every academic year. This year, the task force is creating a series of recommendations to improve the retention of U staff and faculty of color. Recent findings introduced in task force meetings shows a nationwide gap between long-term employment of non-white faculty and staff, with the latter gap being significantly larger.
The task force hopes to present President Watkins with an official list of recommendations this April. “President Watkins has shown a tremendous commitment to addressing racial inequality on campus by the U’s administration,” said Derezotes. “I look forward to what can be accomplished through real, tangible reforms.”
Expanding on race as well as campus violence, Dr. Derezotes believes that a systematic approach will provide better long-term benefits for a safer campus. He went on to say that increasing faculty retention is one way of improving this. “We should be promoting a community where we interact with people of diverse backgrounds, different from what you may have been previously exposed to,” Derezotes said. This goes beyond faculty, staff and people of color. This includes gender and ideologies. Familiarity and shared experience through academic pursuits and campus discussions can do a lot of work to disrupt misunderstanding at the source, according to Derezotes.