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Panel tells UI that changes could bolster safety

UPDATED: Wed., Nov. 30, 2011, 1:09 p.m.

BOISE — 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.

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.

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