Analysis: A week of unspeakable tragedy and unanswered questions at University of Idaho
Originally posted on IdahoEdNews.org on November 17, 2022
When he decided to keep the University of Idaho campus open this week, President Scott Green said he “relied heavily on the expertise of the Moscow Police Department.”
Green’s vote of confidence came during a news conference that inspired little confidence.
Four University of Idaho students — Ethan Chapin, 20, a freshman from Mount Vernon, Wash.; Kaylee Goncalves, 21, a senior from Rathdrum; Xana Kernodle, 20, a junior from Post Falls; and Madison Mogen, 21, a senior from Coeur d’Alene — were found dead Sunday in a house on King Road, outside the U of I campus. Police have said the students were stabbed with “an edged weapon such as a knife.” No arrests have been made in connection with the case.
Police said they have no suspect in the deaths of four U of I students. They have no weapon, or the clothes the killer wore at the crime scene. They said they are piecing together a timeline leading up to Sunday morning’s slayings. They urged the community to call in tips. They didn’t discuss a possible motive.
Police also walked back a key piece of their narrative. While maintaining, without explanation, that the homicides were a targeted attack, they said they can’t assure the public is safe. “There’s still an individual out there who committed four horrible, horrible crimes,” Moscow police chief James Fry said late Wednesday afternoon.
No truer or more chilling words came out the 30-minute law enforcement-U of I presser. Nothing could have further shaken Moscow or the U of I campus community. And nothing better illustrates the crisis facing the U of I.
The U of I is trying to mourn, and operate, against the backdrop of an active crime scene. And a homicide investigation that appears at a standstill — based on what police have said publicly, at least. The U of I is trying to assure students and parents that their campus is safe, in a week when assurance has been in short supply.
Since the crimes occurred in an off-campus house, Moscow police and the Idaho State Police are heading up the investigation. With no jurisdiction over the case, the U of I has also had little control over the messaging.
Which quickly spun out of control.
Police said little about the case Monday and Tuesday — beyond their unexplained assertion that the attacks were targeted. With no suspect in custody, and a murder-suicide scenario ruled out, that narrative never seemed to gain much traction.
Rumor filled the void created by silence. Victims’ families were left to tell their side of the story — in hopes of keeping their loved ones from being revictimized. An uninformed community, feeling unsafe, is also unprepared to grieve.
“When police don’t give as much information as they can, as soon as they can, it can often turn the community’s feelings of hurt into anger,” said Holly Cook, a Boise public relations consultant. Cook has worked with law enforcement in several capacities — including lobbying for the Fraternal Order of Police and working as a spokeswoman for the Idaho Falls Police Department.
In another honest moment from Wednesday’s news conference, Fry admitted he let the story get away. “The reality is, I probably should have been standing here a day or so ago.”
There is, of course, an inevitable and uneasy balancing act. A tension between informing and reassuring the public and preserving the integrity of an investigation. Green alluded to this Wednesday, saying the U of I has “continually pushed for information whenever possible.”
In a case like this, university officials might not know anything more about a crime than the public knows. Or university officials might know more — and remain silent, for fear of compromising the police investigation.
When the university is operating off of what information it has — information that can change quickly — it’s impossible to know what factors into a decision to keep a campus open or close a campus. “It’s hard to know without knowing the full details of the incident,” said Abigail Boyer, associate executive director of the Clery Center, a Fort Washington, Pa.-based nonprofit focused on campus security and safety.
The U of I adopted an either-or approach. Classes reopened Tuesday, for students who wanted to keep up with their coursework and study alongside their friends. Students were also given the option of going home, beginning their Thanksgiving break early, without penalty.
It’s impossible to calculate how many of the U of I’s 9,100 undergraduate and graduate students left this week, spokeswoman Jodi Walker said Wednesday night. But she said a “significant number” of students remained on campus.
Meanwhile, parents like Nancy Wilder Williams agonized.
Her daughter Brigit, a sophomore, spent last weekend at home in Sandpoint, returning to campus Monday. The limited information police did release left Williams feeling more and more nervous. On Tuesday, Brigit told her mother that all of her friends were leaving Moscow, making the campus feel creepy and scary.
Brigit returned home Wednesday. “I’m just more relieved than ever that my daughter is home,” Williams said that evening, after the news conference.
Parts of the message remain within the U of I’s control.
The university can emphasize the infrastructure it already has in place, such as campus patrols and security and visitor check-in requirements at dorms, said S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, a Thomson, Ga.-based consulting firm. But that message doesn’t extend to off-campus housing — where Sunday’s crime took place, and where security is less structured. “That’s literally outside (a university’s) jurisdiction,” Carter said.
The U of I can also outline a plan to provide counseling and support, as students grieve the loss of their classmates. And conveying loss and pain — as Green did Wednesday, when he fought back tears while extending condolences to the victims — is important, Boyer said.
Ultimately, the U of I’s most important job is to keep its students and staff safe. And several parents who spoke to Idaho EdNews this week are worried, and unconvinced.
Becky Krasselt comes from a family of “tried and true Vandals.” She and her husband are alums. Their oldest son is an alum. Their daughter will begin studying at the U of I next fall. Their middle child, Isaac, is a junior majoring in ag systems management. As Isaac returned to class Tuesday, commuting from the family home 12 miles north of campus, Becky Krasselt admitted she was apprehensive. “(But) you don’t want to baby them,” she said that afternoon.
On Wednesday night, she said the news conference left her wanting more answers.
RoseAnne Droesch drove from Pasco, Wash., Wednesday to pick up her son Jack, a freshman. They watched the news conference together — along with thousands of people, including up to 7,200 viewers on the U of I YouTube channel. Jack was uneasy about watching. As RoseAnne watched, she found herself feeling even worse. As police acknowledged that the community faces a threat, she said, they came across as cavalier, and unwilling to admit their misstep.
“I’m nervous to send my son back,” she said Thursday morning.
Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday.