University of Utah commits to new student safety plan

Alex Goodlett, Deseret News

The University of Utah will commit more than $380,000 to an enhanced campus safety plan that will require students to take an online sexual assault prevention course; calls for hiring an additional victim advocate among other changes.

SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah will commit more than $380,000 to enhance student safety, including a new requirement that all students take an online sexual assault prevention course before enrolling in classes.

The plan, released to the U.’s board of trustees Wednesday, also calls for the hiring of a new victim advocate, a new case manager and an additional conduct staff member in the Dean of Students Office and a one-year awareness campaign to promote the launch of a new campus safety website.

The website will have tabs on sexual assault reporting and prevention, emergency and physical safety, campus climate/diversity and training, as well as video clips from campus administrators, students and coaches about expectations regarding the U.’s commitment to campus safety.

The university will spend $125,000 alone to improve lighting on campus. The campus police department is making other efforts to add cameras on campus to further enhance safety.

U. President David Pershing impaneled a task force last winter following the high-profile report of a sexual assault on campus on Oct. 31, 2016. The investigation was later suspended due to a lack of evidence.

The group of 21 people, which included students, delivered its recommendations to the board of trustees Wednesday.

Trustee Cristina Ortega, who has worked nearly 15 years as a prosecutor in Davis and Salt Lake counties, presented the task force report, noting the university has “a strong foundation” of services and advocacy “but there were some missing bricks.”

According to the report, a survey conducted in the fall of 2012 found that “the majority of students report they feel safe on campus, an endorsement of the hard work our campus community is doing to ensure safety in all respects — physical and emotional.”

Pershing, in a statement, said accepting the task force recommendations and deciding to commit funding “represents solid first steps toward ensuring the safety and well-being of all members of our campus community.

“Let me be clear. There is no place for violence, sexual harassment or sexual assault at the University of Utah. It is a high priority for me and all the members of my administrative team to do all that we can to support those who experience trauma — in any form — and at the same time to promote awareness of and educate campus community members about our expectations for our campus culture. Each of us can contribute to making our campus a model of inclusion, respect and safety for everyone who visits, works and studies here. I ask you to join us in working toward that goal.”

Pershing acknowledged that program and practice enhancements were part of “an ongoing process” but “probably most important, we put the money behind it.”

Ortega said the task force’s co-chairwomen, Michele Ballantyne, associate general counsel for the university, and Barb Snyder, vice president for student affairs, conducted seven listening sessions on campus.

The task force report notes that the overarching theme of the meetings and listening sessions was that “safety information — from what is appropriate behavior to how to report an assault, where to find bystander information or daily campus crime reports, how to report concerns about campus lighting or security cameras — needs to be more readily accessible to our entire community.”

One of the most significant changes is the requirement that all students take an interactive sexual assault prevention course before enrolling at the university. Students will also be required to repeat the training every other year while a student.

The task force also recommended that staff and faculty be required to complete anti-discrimination, sexual harassment prevention and bystander intervention training when they are hired.

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Other enhancements include hiring a new case manager and conduct staff member in the Dean of Students Office, which will cost $137,000 annually, and an additional victim advocate in the Center for Student Wellness, “which has seen its caseload increase by 182 percent and is understaffed compared to other PAC-12 institutions.”

Pershing has asked Snyder and Ballantyne to continue to co-chair the task force as it moves to the next phase.

Snyder said delivering the task force recommendations was “just the first step in improving campus safety and more work is undoubtedly needed to achieve our goal of being a safe campus for all. We are committed to continuing this conversation later this summer and as classes begin in the fall.”