Student murders prompt University of Utah to overhaul campus safety

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iStock(SALT LAKE CITY) -- Two highly publicized student murders has caused one university to implement significant changes to its campus safety, including a $13 million building to house the school's police department.

Both incidents, which involved the deaths of female students at the University of Utah, sparked conversations about the safety on campus and the operations of its police department.

Lauren McCluskey, a track athlete at the university, was found dead in a parked car near a residential hall on campus in October 2018.

McCluskey's former boyfriend, Melvin Rowland, shot and killed the 21-year-old and later killed himself on the same night.

Earlier that month, McCluskey had reported to the university police that Rowland, 37, was harassing and stalking her. McCluskey ended their one month relationship after learning he was a registered sex offender who lied about his name, age and criminal history, which included a 2004 conviction of enticing a minor, police said.

Last summer, another University of Utah student, Mackenzie Lueck, was found dead in July 2019 after being reported missing two weeks earlier. Lueck, 23, was murdered by a man she had met in an off-campus park late at night. The suspect was later identified by police as 31-year-old Ayoola Ajayi.

Ajayi, who has pleaded not guilty, is awaiting trial on charges of aggravated murder, aggravated kidnapping, obstructing justice and desecration of a human body in connection with Lueck's death.

Now, 16 months since McCluskey’s murder, the University of Utah has introduced a number of initiatives to support campus safety.

After McCluskey’s death, an independent review committee created a list of 30 campus safety recommendations. In just a little over a year, they implemented all recommendations with the new building being the last on the list.

"These buildings are way past their life span," Chris Nelson, the university’s communications director, told ABC News. The university police department is currently in an outdated building that was previously used by the Army during World War II. The new building, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2021, will be located in a more accessible location, according to Nelson.

Among the other changes the university has implemented, a new healthy relationship and consent training has become mandatory for all incoming students.

University President Ruth Watkins had also ordered a preexisting task force to re-look at safety. The safety task force, composed of students, faculty and staff, introduced a new carpool system in August 2019 called SafeRide. With SafeRide, students can request a ride during the evening to and from any point on campus, including the residential halls and hospital.

Nelson noted, "The biggest thing we are working on is to make sure our students have our trust. We always have to improve. We’ve made some really important steps. It’s an ongoing effort."

The $13 million will cover the building's design and construction costs. The building will house the police department, better interview rooms and will be "a place where anyone reporting a crime will have the privacy they would expect," Nelson said.

"Almost 60% of our police department is new. Our new police chief started this week and we’ve hired a new detective who specializes in domestic and interpersonal violence," said Nelson.

No tuition or state tax dollars will go toward the project. The university’s cash reserves will be used and fundraising may have to make up the remaining cost.

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