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UI doubles down amid criticism of text alert implying threat

February 5, 2019 GMT

The University of Idaho’s Vandal Alert system that pings the cellphones of students was designed to promptly notify the campus community of ongoing threats to public safety, such as violent crimes and severe weather events.

So it was unusual when a recent Vandal Alert 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.

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 ... the 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 ... 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 the 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, citing the advice of her lawyer.

The university has issued a statement confirming UI President Chuck Staben gave final approval for the Vandal Alert after the situation was reviewed by “a diverse team of university experts.”