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UI administrators double down amid criticism of text alert implying professor was a safety threat

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 31, 2019, 11:05 p.m.

Denise Bennett, a tenured journalism professor at the University of Idaho, criticizes school officials in a video posted to YouTube on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. The university said Wednesday it had banned Bennett from the Moscow campus and heightened security patrols. (YouTube)

One fall morning in 2012, a “Vandal Alert” pinged the cellphones of students, faculty and staff at the University of Idaho.

A moose had wandered onto the Moscow campus, and so the university used its emergency communication system to remind people they shouldn’t get too close.

The Vandal Alert system, like similar tools in use at other schools, was designed to promptly notify the campus community of ongoing threats to public safety, such as violent crimes, severe weather events and the occasional wild animal.

So it was, at the very least, unusual when a Vandal Alert on Wednesday urged people to call police if they saw a certain journalism professor on campus.

“Denise Bennett has been barred from Moscow Campus,” the text said. “Recent admittance to police of meth use and access to firearms. If seen on campus, call 911.”

The Vandal Alert escalated a feud between Bennett and UI administrators. After firing off a lengthy, profanity-laced email in which she lambasted higher-ups for perceived problems in the School of Journalism and Mass Media, Bennett was placed on paid leave Jan. 24. She also was accused of raising her voice at the school’s dean and one other employee.

Students were planning an event to protest Bennett’s suspension when the Vandal Alert was issued Wednesday morning.

As they have pointed out, the alert was misleading. The reference to guns and methamphetamine came from a months-old police report concerning a verbal domestic dispute that had resulted in no criminal charges. Bennett was in downtown Moscow when the alert was issued, and police have told multiple news outlets she presented no threat.

“Within minutes of yesterday’s Vandal Alert, my students started getting calls from their parents. ‘Are you safe? Is there a shooter on campus?’ ” said Steve Smith, a clinical assistant professor in UI’s journalism school. “So the clear implication of that Vandal Alert yesterday was that there is a significant danger to the university community.”

Smith, a former editor of The Spokesman-Review, began teaching at UI in 2010 and knows Bennett as a colleague. She’s worked at UI since 2006, teaching courses in broadcasting, digital media production and documentary filmmaking.

“She’s an outstanding professor, really quite an extraordinary professor,” Smith said. “She’s tough. She works her students hard. She’s blunt and can be critical. But as her students move through her program, they come to appreciate the preparation they’re receiving for professional careers, which is why you’re seeing such an extreme reaction from her current and former students. She is, if not beloved, certainly well-respected.”

As for Wednesday’s Vandal Alert, Smith said he considers the move “unconscionable, manipulative and cruel,” and possibly a violation of Bennett’s due process rights.

“It was an effort to seize control of the narrative, which the university had lost to Denise by virtue of being silent in terms of public communication,” Smith said. “And secondarily, I think they understood that it would have the effect of damaging the student protest, the voices of students. … I think it puts the students in the position of demonstrating in support of somebody who poses a threat.”

Bennett declined to comment Thursday, citing the advice of her lawyer.

Wednesday’s Vandal Alert came a day after she appeared in a live video on YouTube, reading from her suspension letter and reacting angrily after each paragraph. A Moscow police officer who was watching that livestream reportedly recognized Bennett and passed along information to UI about a November domestic dispute involving Bennett and her husband, Brad Janssen.

On Wednesday evening, Janssen showed up at a student-led demonstration and disputed the university’s claim of drug use, which originated from the police report.

“I’d say that is completely ludicrous, and she’s getting a drug test right now to refute those allegations,” Janssen told KREM-TV. “They’re trying to do everything they can to smear her and discredit her. It makes me ashamed to be an alumni at the University of Idaho.”

On Thursday, the university issued a statement confirming President Chuck Staben had given final approval for the Vandal Alert after the situation was reviewed by “a diverse team of university experts.”

“In this case, such a group met to thoughtfully consider how to manage this difficult situation, made the recommendation to the president that we communicate very specifically and directly to our university community and the president supported that recommendation,” the statement said.

The statement acknowledged the text alert “contained specific information about Ms. Bennett which may have seemed an unusual level of detail for such a communication.”

But the administration also defended the contents of the alert, saying, “We believed the situation to be very serious and the information relevant and important to convey the reality of our concerns to the community.”

Wednesday’s alert came shortly before another student demonstration was supposed to take place on campus. A report in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News on Thursday pointed out that UI has been slow to issue Vandal Alerts for serious incidents in the past.

In 2011, for example, it took the university nearly 10 hours to send out an alert after a professor, Ernesto Bustamante, shot a 22-year-old student, Katherine Benoit, while she stood on the back porch of her apartment a few blocks from campus. After the deadly attack, the university said it would work to improve its alert system.

In 2015, Moscow resident John Lee went on a murderous rampage, killing his adoptive mother, his landlord and a manager at an Arby’s restaurant. The Daily News reported that Washington State University issued alerts minutes after learning Lee was headed toward the Washington border, but UI did not issue an alert for about eight hours. UI did share links to a news story on its social media pages about 30 minutes after WSU’s alerts.

And in April 2017, a batch of experimental rocket fuel exploded in a UI parking lot, injuring four members of a student club. The university took nearly an hour to issue a Vandal Alert.

Bennett, meanwhile, remains banned from the Moscow campus, and the administration again urged anyone who sees her on campus to call police.

“The university will continue to attempt to engage with Ms. Bennett regarding her employment,” the university’s statement said. “This process will take time and is not subject to public disclosure by the university.”