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Utah University Admits ‘Shortcomings’ in Handling Domestic Abuse Case



Zhifan Dong had only been at the University of Utah for a few months when she raised the first alarm: She told a residential director at the university’s housing department that her ex-boyfriend, who lived in the same dorm building, had assaulted her in a downtown Salt Lake City motel room.

Two days after the Jan. 12 assault, Ms. Dong, 19, told the director that she was concerned about her ex, Haoyu Wang, 26. She said he had suicidal ideation and that she had not heard from him since he was arrested in connection with the assault.

Ms. Dong and Mr. Wang were both international students from China, but she would not return home alive. Ms. Dong was found dead in a motel room about a month after reporting Mr. Wang to the police.

In documents released this week, the university acknowledged it mishandled some of the warning signs leading up to Ms. Dong’s death. The documents include text messages, emails and internal reports that show staff members at the university’s housing department delayed telling the campus police that Ms. Dong had been attacked.

The paper trail reveals the university’s missteps but it does not fill in the blanks of what happened to Ms. Dong in the final weeks of her life, when she missed classes and stopped staying in her dorm room. In danger and far from home, the only glimpse at her experience is a few vague text messages sent from her phone in which she declined help from the school and said she needed “rest.”

Days later, on Feb. 11, police found Ms. Dong dead next to Mr. Wang in a motel room in downtown Salt Lake City. Mr. Wang had told a member of the university housing staff in an email that morning that he had killed Ms. Dong by injecting her with heroin. In March, he was charged with murder.

The Salt Lake Tribune had been seeking records related to the case for months and the newspaper said a court had set a July 28 deadline for the university to grant it access to a campus police report filed after Ms. Dong was reported missing. Instead, the university released more than 100 pages of documents.

The documents show that after Ms. Dong first told university housing staff members on Jan. 14 about the motel room assault, they were slow to involve other groups, including the campus police and the university’s Behavioral Intervention Team. It took more than three weeks before those groups were involved, even though housing staff members failed to get in contact with Ms. Dong until Feb. 6 by phone or during visits to her dorm room, according to the university’s timeline.

In that time, staff members had one visit with Mr. Wang in his dorm room. He told them that he had a counseling appointment scheduled for that day, Jan. 24, and would not need more help, according to the documents.

A few days later, a staff member called another student named Haoyu Wang, not realizing it was the wrong person. As a result, the staff member did not report the ex-boyfriend as missing even though they saw that his access card had not been used at the dorm building for seven days.

The university said its “shortcomings” included the staff members’ delays, a need for better training and processes in housing, and “insufficient and unprofessional” internal communications. The school said these issues had been addressed.

“I’ve challenged university senior leaders to leave no stone unturned as we seek additional ways to enhance safety,” said the university’s president, Taylor Randall.

Ms. Dong’s parents, Junfang Shen and Mingsheng Dong, said on Friday that they “trusted the University of Utah with our daughter’s safety, and they betrayed that trust.”

“They knew Zhifan was in serious danger but failed to protect her when she needed it the most,” the parents said. “We do not want her death to be in vain.”

On Feb. 6, Ms. Dong’s roommate said she was concerned because she had not seen her in more than a week. The next day, staff members determined Ms. Dong had not swiped her building access card since Jan. 28.

On Feb. 8, a housing administrator organized a meeting with the University’s Behavioral Intervention Team, which filed a missing-person report with the campus police. It was the first time that the University of Utah Police Department was contacted about the Jan. 12 motel room assault.

Officers spoke to Ms. Dong in a video call that day. She showed the police a motel room where she said she was staying, but did not say where it was and declined to meet with them. The police used pings from Ms. Dong’s cellphone to try and find her but were unsuccessful after visiting seven hotels in downtown Salt Lake City. Ms. Dong agreed to meet a housing administrator on campus on Feb. 11.

On Feb. 10, a housing administrator spoke on the phone with Mr. Wang, who said he was upset about his arrest in January and about his reputation as a “domestic abuser,” according to the documents. Ms. Dong had been issued a temporary protective order for the Jan. 12 assault, but the school did not receive notice.

In an email received at 3:51 a.m. on Feb. 11, Mr. Wang wrote to a housing administrator that he had killed Ms. Dong with drugs he bought on the internet and planned to kill himself. Officers forced their way into a motel room where Mr. Wang had been a registered guest since Feb. 3 and found Ms. Dong dead, a detective with the Salt Lake City Police Department said in a probable cause statement.

Years before Ms. Dong was killed, the University of Utah said it had not properly handled concerns raised by another student, Lauren McCluskey, 21, who was fatally shot in 2018 by a man she had dated for a few weeks.

Ms. Dong’s parents are being represented by the same law firm as Ms. McCluskey’s parents, who accused the school of failing to take action after their daughter asked officials for help. They reached a $13.5 million settlement with the university in 2020.

Brian Stewart, a lawyer representing Ms. Dong’s parents, said on Friday that the university “failed to take necessary action to prevent Zhifan’s murder despite receiving repeated reports of the real risks she faced.”

“Especially after professing to have learned from Lauren McCluskey’s death, it is inexcusable that the university continues to make the same mistakes with the same tragic consequences,” Mr. Stewart said.

Jesus Jiménez contributed reporting.

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Adnan Syed of ‘Serial,’ Newly Freed, Is Hired by Georgetown University



Adnan Syed, who was freed in September after he spent 23 years in prison fighting a murder conviction that was chronicled in the hit podcast “Serial,” has been hired by Georgetown University as an associate for an organization whose work mirrors the efforts that led to his release, the university has announced.

Mr. Syed, the subject of the 2014 podcast and pop-culture sensation that raised questions about whether he had received a fair trial after being convicted of strangling his high school classmate and onetime girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999, will work for Georgetown’s Prisons and Justice Initiative.

Mr. Syed, who was 17 at the time of Ms. Lee’s death in Baltimore, has steadfastly maintained his innocence.

The university said that Mr. Syed, now 41, will help support programs at the organization, such as a class in which students reinvestigate wrongful convictions and seek to “bring innocent people home” by creating short documentaries about their findings. The program, founded in 2016, “brings together leading scholars, practitioners, students and those affected by the criminal justice system to tackle the problem of mass incarceration,” according to its website.

Georgetown University, which is in Washington, said that in the year leading up to his release, Mr. Syed was enrolled in the university’s bachelor of liberal arts program at the Maryland prison where he was incarcerated.

“To go from prison to being a Georgetown student and then to actually be on campus on a pathway to work for Georgetown at the Prisons and Justice Initiative, it’s a full circle moment,” Mr. Syed said in a statement. “P.J.I. changed my life. It changed my family’s life. Hopefully I can have the same kind of impact on others.”

He added that he hoped to continue his education at Georgetown and go to law school.

The new job this month culminated what has been a remarkable year for Mr. Syed, whose case has again received widespread public attention after a flurry of recent legal activity.

In September, Mr. Syed was released from prison after a judge overturned his murder conviction. Prosecutors said at the time that an investigation had uncovered various problems related to his case, including the potential involvement of two suspects and key evidence that prosecutors might have failed to provide to Mr. Syed’s lawyers.

In October, prosecutors in Baltimore dropped the charges against Mr. Syed after DNA testing on items that had never been fully examined proved Mr. Syed’s innocence, officials said.

Ms. Lee’s family filed an appeal with the Maryland Court of Special Appeals after prosecutors dropped the charges.

On Nov. 4, the court said in an order that the appeal could be heard in court in February.

Marc Howard, the director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative, said in a statement that Mr. Syed’s “commitment to the program and to his education was clear from the moment he stepped into the classroom.”

He added that Mr. Syed “is one of the most resilient and inspiring people I’ve ever met, and he has so much to offer our team and the other students in P.J.I. programs.”

In a Georgetown University article about the hiring, Mr. Syed said that he was in disbelief when he first saw a flier for the program.

“It became this domino effect to see us be accepted,” he said. “It made it become something real in the eyes of others, that there are opportunities. There can be a sense of hope: a sense of hope that things can get better, a sense of hope that I can work hard and still achieve something, a sense of hope that I can still do something that my family will be proud of.”

His attachment to the school was evident on Sept. 19, when he walked out of prison for the first time since he was a teenager.

Amid a throng of reporters and his supporters, Mr. Syed walked down the courthouse steps in Baltimore, smiling. He gave a wave.

And in his hand, he carried a binder with a Georgetown sticker. His graded papers and tests were inside.

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At Berkeley Law, a Debate Over Zionism, Free Speech and Campus Ideals



“Supporting Palestinian liberation does not mean opposition to Jewish people or the Jewish religion,” the group said in a statement to the Berkeley law community. Members of the group did not respond to messages seeking an interview.

After learning about the bylaw, Mr. Chemerinsky met with the university’s Hillel rabbi and spoke with several Jewish students, but, aside from concerns within the law school, the reaction was relatively muted, he said.

That changed, he said, after Kenneth L. Marcus, the civil rights chief of the U.S. Education Department during the Trump administration, wrote about the bylaw in September in The Jewish Journal under the explosive headline “Berkeley Develops Jewish Free Zones.”

Mr. Marcus wrote that the bylaw was “frightening and unexpected, like a bang on the door in the night,” and said that free speech does not protect discriminatory conduct.

The article went viral.

Mr. Chemerinsky said he learned about Mr. Marcus’s article, which he described as “inflammatory and distorted,” while he was in Los Angeles for a conference. Mr. Chemerinsky said he typed out a response to the article, which was appended to it, and then didn’t think much of it. That afternoon, he was deluged by emails. At an alumni event that night, the law school’s perceived hostility to Jews was “all anyone wanted to talk about.”

In an interview, Mr. Marcus, a Berkeley law school alumnus, said that he was contacted by law students there who were concerned about the bylaw. He said he spent weeks trying to support them and wrote his article after Berkeley did not “rectify the problem.”

Not allowing Zionist speakers, he said, was a proxy for prohibiting Jews. The provisions, he said, are “aimed at the Jewish community and those who support the Jewish community,” even while acknowledging that the policy could allow Jewish speakers and bar those who are not Jewish.

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‘Better Defined By Their Strengths’: 5 Ways to Support Students With Learning Differences



“People with learning differences are human,” wrote Deanna White, a neurodiversity advocate and parent learning coach in response to a question we posed on LinkedIn. “Unique individuals and wonderful humans that are better defined by their strengths. So stop focusing on the weakness.”

We invited our social media followers across Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter to weigh in on the most effective way schools can better support students with learning differences.

Responses ranged from shifting educators’ mindset—like highlighting student strengths—to more far-reaching changes that would require schoolwide or district support.

Focus on students’ strengths

There are many ways of encouraging students to play to their strengths, as educators Winston Sakurai and Phyllis Fagell demonstrated in an August 2022 article by Education Week Assistant Editor Denisa Superville.

They detailed how they shared their own learning struggles as a way to connect with their students. Their personal successes show students, who may be struggling academically or socially, that anything is possible.

Here’s what other educators had to say.

1. Help them understand their learning strengths and challenges and growing them as strong self-advocates.

2. Devoting time and money to developing teachers’ abilities to differentiate.

– Amy S.

By having high expectations and giving them exposure to high-quality materials and experiences, even ones that seem “above them.” They will shock us with their insights every time.

– Angela P. 😒😒🥴

Meet students where they are

In a 2015 primer on the topic, EdWeek Assistant Editor Sarah D. Sparks wrote about how “differentiated instruction”—the process of identifying students’ individual learning strengths, needs, and interests and adapting lessons to match them—became a popular approach to helping diverse students learn together. Respondents largely agreed.

Time to work with every student. If you can meet with a child for a bit of time to help with exactly what she or he needs, it might ignite both learning and understanding.

Alison K.

So many ways…start with environment, a.k.a. The Third Teacher.

  • Reduce obstacles

  • Increase supports

  • Meet kids where they are

(h/t @drncgarrett)

Matt R.

Small class sizes, strong positive teacher/student relationships, differentiated instruction, and reflection.

Yvonne E.

Smaller class sizes

In a 2017 Opinion essay, former teacher Marc Vicenti wrote about “the daily wear and tear on educators when trying to juggle a full teaching load and meaningful relationships with lively young people who all have different needs and experiences.”

“We can either choose to be less effective in our practice or exhaust ourselves—neither of which is beneficial to students or our own well-being,” he wrote.

Smaller class sizes are one way of mitigating the risk of burnout while working to meet each student’s needs.

Small classes, small schools, local control. I am the principal in a pretty small school in a small community and I know every child, and every family and we can build programs to meet our students’ needs. A country run or state run school system can’t do that.

Ryan G.

Increase funding to actually lower the student-to-teacher ratio. This allows teachers to give more time to the individual.

Cathleen W.

Fewer standardized tests

Standardized tests have long been criticized for narrowing instruction and for holding all students to the same standard when “students enter school at varying levels and learn and grow at different rates.”

The backlash against standardized testing renewed interest in alternative ways to evaluate students’ learning progress, like “performance assessments—the idea of measuring what students can do, not merely what they know”.

STOP standardized testing.

Dawn W.

Fewer standardized or timed tests, teaching to mastery, not according to a schedule.


Give students a voice

Sometimes it’s best to go to the source to discern how to best tackle an issue. Giving these students a voice can not only empower them in their learning, but also help educators understand how to have the biggest impact.

Ask them how they learn and what helps. Give them a voice!

Grisel W.

Yes! Listening to what students need and giving them a voice is something we need to do for all students, but especially those who need more help in the classroom.

Victoria D.

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