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University of Utah incident report audit

Results of an external review and investigation into handling of safety and racist/bias incidents show that the majority of cases were handled appropriately, but communication between offices can be improved.

The University of Utah is reviewing the results of an objective external investigation into the effectiveness of university systems for reporting and response procedures related to safety and racist and bias incidents, with a focus on those occurring in Housing & Residential Education (HRE). The U retained Husch Blackwell LLP law firm in February 2022 to conduct a review and investigation after specific racist and bias incidents were reported to the university’s Racist and Bias Incident Response Team (RBIRT) in December 2021. Senior leadership at the U acted quickly to evaluate internal processes, create actionable next steps, improve education and training and identify recommendations for making meaningful change. This report is one of the critical steps in moving this work forward.

The Husch Blackwell review team identified and interviewed 11 university employees in several departments including HRE; the Office of the Dean of Students; Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion; Student Affairs and the University Police Department. They also reviewed a number of university policies, procedure documents and training materials, and all incident reports submitted during the Fall 2021 semester (except for those classified as “Academic Misconduct” or “Admission Review” matters). For benchmarking purposes, Husch Blackwell reviewed publications of other Pac-12 institutions regarding how misconduct that occurs in student housing is communicated to student conduct offices and any committees or offices that are charged with addressing racist and bias incidents.

Read the full report here.

Key findings

HRE receives hundreds of incident reports each semester ranging from minor policy violations such as a candle burning in a residence hall room to serious safety concerns. In its review of 1,620 incident reports from Fall 2021, Husch Blackwell found that in almost all cases, incidents were escalated or reported to the appropriate office in line with university protocols. The report indicates that fewer than 1% suggest situations where housing-safety or racist/bias incidents were not communicated appropriately among university offices or to the university community in a timely manner. While progress can be made toward best practices, the report finds University of Utah policies and practices to be within the guardrails of national higher education standards.

The report was finalized on April 15, 2022. University leaders and administrators will take time to thoroughly review the findings and to learn more about each of the incidents found to have not been reported or addressed adequately.

Below is a list of primary reasons cited for incomplete and untimely reports and steps the university is currently taking to address them.

Staffing

One of the key reasons cited for insufficient reporting of safety and racist/bias incidents within HRE had to do with staffing. The findings indicate concerns that only one HRE staff member is charged with reviewing all incident reports routed to HRE in addition to other duties. Witnesses also reported concern that Resident Advisors (RAs) have too much responsibility for a student leadership position, and that high turnover, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, may be a factor when HRE communications protocols are not followed. Though the report also noted that student RA positions at the U did not appear to have markedly more responsibility than students in similar positions at other institutions.

Witnesses also expressed concern that new staff members are not effectively trained on university policies and procedures. In addition, the report indicates there may be inadequate or incomplete training for RAs and Social Justice Advocates (student staff positions), who are the most frequent incident reporters.

What is being done

While RAs and Social Justice Advocates receive about 15 hours of emergency and safety-related training, the university recognizes it is not the responsibility of student staff to respond to these types of incidents or to enforce the Student Code of Conduct. However, student staff are often the first to hear about or see these incidents and are expected to report them to HRE professional staff for an appropriate response. To that end, HRE is working to build the capacity of its professional staff and has implemented structural changes to streamline communication to and among them.

In addition to its associate director for conduct and outreach management, HRE is in the process of hiring an assistant director. The addition of this new position will increase capacity for reviewing incident reports and communicating with partners and will build in a redundancy process for reviewing specific cases. HRE also eliminated its area coordinator position so resident directors now report directly to an assistant director. As the report notes, this was done to streamline communication in HRE.

HRE is also in the process of filling several open positions and has recently increased wages for professional staff to be more aligned with the industry nationally. Finally, HRE has a new executive director, Sean Grube, who started March 7, 2022, and who is overseeing the structural changes and improved reporting processes.

HRE security

More than one HRE staff member interviewed expressed concern about the perception of U Police by some students and the impact it may have on safety and security in HRE. In particular, the report notes that uniformed police officers may intimidate students, and that U Police officers are not able to form relationships with HRE staff because they are not assigned to specific buildings.

Witnesses also identified video surveillance as a concern, including the fact that just two HRE leaders have the ability to request access to footage. It was suggested that additional cameras may be helpful in hallways and elevators.

What is being done

In addition to four unarmed security officers who staff HRE information desks during night hours and monitor the area, U Police has now assigned an officer to regularly visit the HRE facilities, develop relationships with and provide training to HRE students and staff. In order to keep themselves safe and to ensure they are readily identifiable, it is important that U Police officers remain in uniform while they are on duty. A perception mentioned in the report that U Police wear “tactical gear” may come from a new option in recent years for U Police officers to wear equipment vests rather than utility belts. This option for U Police officers is designed to redistribute the weight of gear and improve the physical health of U Police officers.

There are approximately 400 security cameras in HRE areas, including those monitoring parking lots, offices and points of entry. HRE is looking into pricing for adding additional cameras in elevators. A 2019 survey sent to students in HRE found they do not want security cameras in the hallways of residential areas. University leaders will explore this idea further. Finally, in order to protect student privacy, it is important that only two HRE leaders have the authority to request access to video surveillance footage.

Racist and Bias Incident Response Team (RBIRT) notification

The Racist and Bias Incident Response Team launched the newly created reporting process in 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the report, witnesses suggest a lack of training and knowledge about RBIRT and the lack of mandatory reporting to RBIRT may have contributed to racist and bias incidents not being reported to RBIRT. Witnesses also suggest a need for RBIRT to have its own case manager.

What is being done

University leaders, including the Presidential Commission on Equity and Belonging, are currently developing strategies to ensure the campus community understands the important role RBIRT plays in providing transparency into how racist and bias incidents are reported, communicated and addressed. They are also working to strengthen RBIRT to be appropriately resourced and empowered to act effectively.

The University Safety Department has recently trained its SafeU ambassadors on RBIRT and they are sharing their training during presentations across campus. University leaders are also developing a marketing campaign to help raise awareness about RBIRT and how to report incidents. In addition, the University Safety Department is looking into creating a case manager position that would support the RBIRT process and mission.

Departmental relationships

The incident report findings include examples of breakdowns in communication between university offices due to a lack of automated protocols for sharing information and a lack of formalized policies and procedures for when staff members are required to notify another university office of an incident.

What is being done

HRE has updated expectations for reporting and communicating with campus partners about safety and racist/bias incidents, but will continue to formalize these changes. Under the leadership of its new executive director, HRE is reviewing its training materials and written procedures to formalize expectations to report safety and racist/bias incidents to U Police, the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, the Office of the Dean of Students and RBIRT, as appropriate. Although individuals who have experienced a safety and/or racist/bias incident have the choice of whether or not to move forward with the formal reporting process or to request supportive measures through U Police or OEO/AA, this new protocol will ensure that the appropriate departments are aware of incidents in a timely manner and make the reporting process easier for those who do wish to formally report.

Additional strategies for how offices and departments can work to streamline communication with one another will continue to be developed.