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Panel tells UI changes needed to protect student safety

University of Idaho administrators should develop better ways to handle concerns about disturbing or disruptive behavior by faculty members, an independent panel is recommending, to keep students and employees safe. AP reporter John Miller reports that the panel, headed by former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Linda Copple Trout, sent the university a five-page report today, reviewing the Moscow-based university’s safety protocols after psychology professor Ernesto Bustamante resigned Aug. 19 then gunned down 22-year-old Katy Benoit three days later.

Copple Trout called it imperative that the university figure out a better way for people on campus to report alarming faculty and staff behavior. “While this area is more challenging to address than concerns about student behavior, it is no less important,” she wrote in her report to UI President Duane Nellis; click below for Miller's full report.


Panel tells UI that changes could bolster safety
By JOHN MILLER, Associated Press


BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An independent panel convened following a University of Idaho murder-suicide in August suggested administrators develop a better way to handle concerns about disturbing or disruptive behavior by faculty members in an effort to keep students and employees safe.

Former Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Linda Copple Trout joined two others who reviewed the Moscow-based university's safety protocols after psychology professor Ernesto Bustamante resigned Aug. 19 then gunned down 22-year-old Katy Benoit three days later.

A five-page review released Wednesday concluded the university has explicit policies for responding to students displaying disruptive behaviors but is much less clear on how concerns regarding such behaviors by faculty and staff are handled.

Copple Trout called it imperative that the university figure out a better way for people on campus to report alarming faculty and staff behavior.

“While this area is more challenging to address than concerns about student behavior, it is no less important,” Copple Trout wrote in her report to UI President Duane Nellis.

Prior to the tragedy, Bustamante's behavior was an issue.

One student reported on an evaluation the 31-year-old professor talked about shooting students and coming to class high or drunk. Bustamante also told his department chair on April 30 he was experiencing withdrawal symptoms due to a change in medication to manage mental illness.

In addition, Benjamin Barton, an assistant psychology professor, knew of Bustamante's inappropriate relationships with students, but didn't report them because “it might be perceived as trouble-making or backstabbing,” according to e-mails obtained by The Associated Press.

Copple Trout said in an interview that her group didn't delve into the details of the Bustamante case, so she couldn't comment on whether the shortcomings in addressing faculty behavior contributed to the killings.

“That just wasn't the charge,” she said. “I don't think it's appropriate for me to go there.”

Following reviewers' conclusions, Ron Smith, vice president for finance and administration at the university, was named to lead a task force to implement the reviewers' recommendations.

Smith said it's more difficult to create a reporting mechanism for faculty exhibiting potentially disturbing behavior because of employment laws that may restrict just how the university can intervene — something that's not as significant an issue as school dealings with students' behavior.

Overall, Smith said the report is thorough and will help guide the school in making changes to bolster campus safety.

“They made some recommendations I think are appropriate,” he said. “We're going to implement them. We'll probably never be over this tragedy, but we feel it's important to take the extra step to make sure we have policies and procedures be in place and be usable as we try to prevent this from ever happening again. Of course, if there's a crazy person, it's hard.”

Copple Trout's panel also suggested that the UI adopt background checks and putting the school's consensual relationship policy more prominent on the school's Web site.

Since the tragedy, the school has moved to adopt a policy of strongly discouraging relationships between faculty members and students. The current policy says consensual romantic or sexual relationships between faculty members and students are “generally deemed unwise.”

The new policy is on track to be adopted by faculty at a meeting Dec. 13, Smith said.

Benoit and Bustamante began a relationship starting in fall 2010 when she took his psychology course. Benoit told the university in June that her relationship with Bustamante ended after he pointed a loaded gun at her head on three separate occasions and detailed how he would use it.

Other members of the UI review panel were Larry Roper, vice provost for student affairs at Oregon State, and Bob Duringer, vice president of administration and finance at the University of Montana.

They went beyond reviewing safety policies as they relate to faculty members such as Bustamante, also suggesting that UI strengthen policies on physical abuse, hazing and harassment where it is addressed in the student code of conduct.

“It may be worth putting additional effort into adding additional narrative to fully express the intent of the policy and to more strongly communicate behavioral expectations of students,” the panelists wrote.

They also concluded there may be holes in the university's system of managing issues of student distress and disruption, because a group that convenes to discuss such matters shares information unevenly. For instance, Moscow Police Department members can participate in some of the sessions but must exit when student information that's protected under federal law is discussed.

That may diminish the capacity of the group to intervene in truly high-risk situations.

“It was of concern to the panel that not every member of the group was a participant in all of the discussions,” Copple Trout said.


Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.


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Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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