MOSCOW, Idaho — The University of Idaho sent out an email on Thursday explaining why they sent out such a specific alert Wednesday regarding a professor barred from campus.
The university said in an email on Thursday to faculty, staff and students that the alert contained such specific information because of communications profressor Denise Bennett's conduct, information from police and uncertainty surrounding whether or not Bennett would attend a student protest Wednesday.
The full alert read: “Denise Bennett has been barred from Moscow Campus. Recent admittance to police of meth use and access to firearms. If seen on campus, call 911.”
Bennett was placed on administrative leave effective on the evening of Jan. 24 after speaking out about the handling of University of Idaho grant funding, according to The Moscow-Pullman Daily News.
According to a Facebook event, students believe the university "demonstrated a lack of interest over what the students have to say about this."
The Facebook event said students met at Teaching Learning Center 47 at 6:00 p.m. Then, they marched to the administration office.
Along with multiple students, Bennett's husband, Brad Janssen, participated in the walk-out. He called the University's accusation about Bennett's use of meth "ludicrous" and said the university is attempting to "railroad" his wife.
"It makes me ashamed to be an alumni of the University of Idaho," Janssen said.
Statements from students and the University of Idaho
The university sent out an email to faculty, students and staff Thursday morning with an update on the situation, reading in part:
"The university’s alert contained specific information about Ms. Bennett which may have seemed an unusual level of detail for such a communication. Ms. Bennett’s public conduct in recent days and information we received from law enforcement raised concerns about the safety of our campus community. Knowledge that students would gather at noon in the Administration Building to protest the university’s actions and uncertainty around Ms. Bennett’s whereabouts or whether she would attend the protest increased the seriousness of these concerns to a level which gave rise to the alert. We believed the situation to be very serious and the information relevant and important to convey the reality of our concerns to the community."
"As you all engage in your campus work and classroom responsibilities, your diligence and awareness of your surroundings are appreciated as we continue to address issues related to campus safety concerns and the administrative leave. Ms. Bennett remains banned from the Moscow campus. This will be enforced by law enforcement. If you see her on campus, please contact the Moscow Police Department at 911 or 208-882-7054."
"In situations which cause concern for the safety and well-being of our students, faculty and staff, a diverse team of university experts comes together to assess the situation, share information and develop an action plan. This group makes a recommendation to the president who then decides which course of action the university will take. 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."
Students with #ReinstateDenise released a statement Wednesday evening saying in part:
"The University of Idaho has grossly mishandled their suspension of Associate Professor Denise Bennett. Events over the last week have been detrimental to students and our education and they have shown a pattern of administrative incompetence by the university.
"The actions that led to Bennett’s suspension were an escalation on her part to get the administration’s attention, after their repeated failure to address her concerns via more official channels. She was informed of her suspension on Thursday. It then took the university until Tuesday to actually get her the formal letter, and to inform students about the status of their classes mere hours before they were scheduled.
"Hours before today’s scheduled sit-in at the CLASS offices, an emergency VandalAlert was sent out under the direction of President Chuck Staben. “Denise Bennett has been barred from Moscow Campus. Recent admittance to police of meth use and access to firearms. If seen on campus, call 911.” We’d like to suggest the use of the word “admission.”
"The alert contains little context. Students unaffiliated with the JAMM department wouldn’t likely recognize Bennett by her name alone, especially if they have not been following the news of her suspension. It explicitly mentions drugs and firearms, urging the recipient to call 911 on sight. The alert leaves out, however, that these drug allegations come from a November police report and that there are no direct threats to campus or students."
Communications Director Jodi Walker said the university became aware of "concerning behavior" the week Bennett was placed on administrative leave. Since then, Walker said the administration became aware of additional information that made them worried for the safety of students, faculty and staff on campus.
The alert issued on Wednesday came as a response to a scheduled student sit-in planned for Wednesday afternoon to protest Bennett's suspension, according to Walker. Walker said that administrators want to respect students' first amendment rights, while also ensuring the safety of everyone on campus.
Bennett reads letter from the school
Bennett read the letter formally letting her know the conditions of her administrative leave on a YouTube Live video. In the video, she admitted to yelling at university administrators and students in order to get their attention.
"I interact with students in a way more offensive manner, in a way more uncivil manner on a daily basis! I yell at them and the reason why is because it's a performance, dude," Bennett said in the video.
Warning: This video contains strong language
Bennett's complaints and emails
Bennett told the Moscow-Pullman Daily News that the placement is most likely because of an email sent to the administration expressing her disappointment with the handling of grant funds as well as the underfunding and lack of maintenance at the Radio-TV Center on the UI campus.
Bennett's email to university administrators came after she was informed last week of $451 in unspent grant money. She had hoped to use the money for a documentary about LGBTQ people across the state of Idaho.
KREM obtained a copy of that email (sent on Jan. 22, 2019), where Bennett expresses frustration over her concerns. An excerpt reads:
"To whom it may concern in This NEVER ENDING F***ED UP BUREAUCRACY known as the University of Idaho: I am so unbelievably frustrated and fed up with ALL THE POWERS THAT BE HERE INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO ineffective and inefficient processes and systems... FROM THIS DAY FORWARD, JANUARY 22, 2019, I WILL NO LONGER SPEAK IN PERSON WITH OR RESPOND TO EMAILS/PHONE CALLS FROM, ANYONE ASSOCIATED WITH THE ADMINISTRATION OF UI, CLASS, OSP OR OTHER ADMINISTRATIVE UNITS... BECAUSE THEY ARE ALL JUST ONE GIANT CLUSTER F*** EXTENSION OF THE MAN..."
Protest canceled Wednesday morning
On Wednesday morning, Moscow Police Captain Tyson Berrett said officers were on campus because students had planned a sit-in/protest in support of Bennett.
Berrett said the Vandal Alert was sent out before students were able to protest. Officers then left campus. Then at noon, officers served Bennett paperwork barring her from University of Idaho campus.
Berrett said Bennett is not being investigated by Moscow police.
Petition to reinstate Bennett
More than 800 people have signed a Change.org petition titled “Reinstate Denise Bennett.” It claims Bennett was put on administrative leave “without any indication regarding the duration.”
The petition reads in part: “We are calling for Denise to be reinstated immediately as this forced leave is both unfounded, and is an immense disservice to students, the university community, and the community as a whole.”
Moscow-Pullman Daily News says the tenured mass media professor has worked at the university since 2006.
According to UI Faculty and Staff Handbook regarding administrative leave, Bennett will continue to receive pay and benefits. An employee may be granted administrative leave when the state or the university will benefit as a result of such leave, according to the handbook.
This is a developing story.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.