Mourning the death of Zhifan Dong: A commitment to improve

Editors note: This post was updated 8/04/2022

Publicly available documentation:

 

The University of Utah continues to mourn the passing of Zhifan Dong, a first-year student from China allegedly killed by a fellow student, Haoyu Wang, on Feb. 11, 2022.

Today, the university released a detailed timeline, internal review and all publicly available university documentation related to Dong’s death. The release of this information was delayed based on an active criminal investigation and a request made by the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office.

The timeline and related actions reveal a complex mix of behavioral health challenges, underlying staffing shortages, intimate partner violence, off-campus events, missing persons and alleged criminal actions.

The timeline and actions also reveal that university staff, police and international partners took extensive efforts to support Dong and Wang, including more than 25 actions over a 29-day period (from Jan. 12 to Feb. 11, 2022) to meet, text, email and video conference with the students and friends; review access logs; speak with family; file missing person reports; canvass local hotels; and provide aid.

Despite these efforts, the university acknowledges shortcomings in its response to this complex situation, including insufficient and unprofessional communications, a need for clarity in the training of housing workers and a delay in notifying university police and the Office of Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action, and Title IX of indications of intimate partner violence. These immediate deficiencies have all been addressed, including corrective actions with employees.

The university will continue to be transparent and share information related to Dong’s death, listen to suggestions on how we can improve and take actions to better protect students, staff and faculty.

“When it comes to protecting our students, our job is never done,” said President Taylor Randall in an open letter to students, faculty, staff and the community. “I’ve challenged university senior leaders to leave no stone unturned as we seek additional ways to enhance safety.” Randall also pledged to lead “through transparency, by taking action and by constantly improving.”

Known interactions with the students 

The detailed log of events shows that while the university’s Housing and Residential Education (HRE) staff were in regular contact with and providing aid to the two international students, the university’s police and student conduct staff were not immediately notified by housing of indications of an intimate partner violence situation involving the two students, per the university’s guidelines.

Once the University of Utah Police Department (UUPD), Utah Global and the U’s Behavioral Intervention Team (BIT) were made aware of the situation, including a physical altercation that occurred off campus on Jan. 12 between 19-year-old Dong and 26-year-old Wang, university police initiated a broad and urgent effort to find the students. In partnership with a variety of university offices, these efforts included texts, emails, video calls, outreach to parents, filing of missing person reports and canvassing of local hotels. On Feb. 11, Wang was arrested and charged with murder after he allegedly injected Dong with a fatal dose of heroin and fentanyl.

University Chief Safety Officer Keith Squires said the case involves a complex mix of behavioral health challenges, alleged intimate partner violence, missing persons, housing staff shortages and a criminal investigation.

“No life should ever end in such tragic circumstances,” Squires said. “As soon as our police learned of the intimate partner violence between these two students, our officers launched a comprehensive and deliberate search for Zhifan Dong and Haoyu Wang in coordination with Salt Lake City Police. We remain saddened that we were unable to locate them in time.”

The timeline provides additional context

The release of information includes the initial police contact report filed in a missing person’s case involving Dong. The Utah State Records Committee ordered the report be released to the public after a June hearing where university attorneys sought to protect the document as requested by the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office while the prosecution of Wang proceeds. Wang is currently in the Salt Lake County Jail, awaiting a competency hearing in his case.

University leaders released the information to provide additional context to the case while reminding the campus community of the systems and processes in place to support students in crisis.

The reporting gap identified in the university’s timeline was a delay in housing staff notifying university police and student conduct staff of indications that there may have been an active intimate partner violence situation involving the two students. On Feb. 8, after additional university offices became involved, university police identified a protective order issued against Wang on Jan. 12.

University leaders immediately investigated the situation and reviewed trainings, procedures and processes and identified that HRE staff missed key indicators and delayed reporting to other campus offices. To address this, updates were made to the emergency procedures manual, and several additional improvements have been, and continue to be, implemented. The university also took corrective action with those housing employees involved directly in the incident. Two employees resigned before the investigation concluded and corrective actions were taken with the remaining three employees.

HRE Executive Director Sean Grube, who joined the U in March 2022 after Dong’s alleged murder, notes all housing staff will receive updated and revamped emergency procedures training for the current 2022-23 academic year.

“We have restructured our trainings for housing staff,” Grube said. “We are committed to consulting with outside experts to help us rethink how we do things.”

“I expect our staff to recognize signs of intimate partner violence and take the appropriate steps to provide support and resources to our students and to escalate these types of situations, as necessary,” said Lori McDonald, vice president for student affairs. “In this case, key details were overlooked and staff failed to make connections with other parts of campus that could have accelerated the university’s ability to gather additional information and respond more urgently. This is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

Detailing multiple points of contact

On Jan. 12, Salt Lake City Police arrested Wang after an intimate partner violence assault at an off-campus motel. Wang told police he had hit Dong in the head during an argument. The next day, according to court documents, Dong called the SLCPD and HRE with concerns about Wang’s well-being. HRE staff asked Mental Health First Responders (MH1)—an after-hours housing crisis support program—to conduct a wellness check, but they were not able to connect with Wang.

Housing staff spoke at length with Dong and documented the interactions in a case management software platform, but the incident was not reported to the Office of Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action, and Title IX (OEO), the Office of the Dean of Students or the UUPD, as required. Housing staff continued to check on both students over the next three weeks, often making contact.

University Safety leaders note that they did not learn of the two students and their intimate partner violence history until missing person reports were filed by BIT and HRE, both on Feb. 8.

“Our processes for progressive student discipline and behavioral health care intervention are essential,” said Jason Ramirez, associate vice president and dean of students. “As soon as the appropriate staff were alerted to this history between the two students, the university’s student conduct and safety protocols kicked into high gear.”

From that point on, Squires said, UUPD officers, in collaboration with the Salt Lake City Police Department, intensified the search effort. They pinged both students’ phones, canvassed downtown hotels and called both students repeatedly.

UUPD, HRE and Utah Global staff actions related to Dong:

  • Responded to her request for help with Wang’s behavioral health on Jan. 14, two days after the Jan. 12 incident. This is the first indication the university receives of a possible intimate partner violence altercation.
  • Initiated four missing persons reports for Dong.
  • Reviewed security card access code logs to determine when Dong had last accessed her residential building and/or campus services.
  • Canvassed at least seven downtown hotels with photos of both students between Feb. 8 and 11 following pings from Dong’s cellphone that narrowed her location to within a 1-mile radius.
  • Video called, phoned and texted multiple times with Dong between Jan. 14 and Feb. 11.
  • Arranged and participated in a phone call between university staff and Dong’s mother on Feb. 9.

UUPD, HRE and Utah Global staff actions related to Wang:

  • Attempted to contact Wang more than a dozen times, including in-person visits to his residence hall, classroom, calling, texting and emailing.
  • Met Wang in person on Jan. 24 during a wellness check, where he self-reported a counseling appointment that afternoon and said he needed no further assistance.
  • Phoned and emailed to remind Wang of potential disciplinary action due to low course hours and a protective order stemming from the Jan. 12 incident.
  • Arranged an on-campus meeting between Wang and HRE administrators set for Feb. 11, the day of the alleged murder.

 

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