EDITORIAL: College should note lessons following campus assault

The criminal case over an assault at Treasure Valley Community College may be over, but the college still has work to do. College officials need to improve handling such incidents.

The assault happened last April. A welding instructor, Tyson B. Smith, admitted shoving college electrician Kenneth Strickland in a class area on campus. Strickland required medical treatment for a head injury and was off duty for a time. He just recently returned to work. Smith pleaded guilty to fourth-degree assault, a misdemeanor, and lost his job at the college.

This was a crime and a police matter, but Treasure Valley Community College officials treated it as a confidential personnel matter. Remember, this is a crime that happened in a public classroom on a college campus with students in the area. The college, though, said not a word publicly about it. Students and faculty were left in the dark, which means they had to feed off rumors instead of facts. College officials didn’t alert their own board members until five days later – and then only in general terms.

Worse, college officials knew the attacker also worked as a teacher in the Payette School District but never bothered to alert colleagues there. Certainly TVCC officials would have been upset if the reverse had happened – had Smith been suspected of criminal conduct in a Payette school but no one alerted Ontario college officials.

College officials maintain this was a “personnel matter.” No, this was a crime committed on their campus. They had a duty to tell students and faculty immediately what had happened. That doesn’t mean assigning guilt, but it would have been more transparent to describe the incident — that an employee indeed was injured, and that both police and the college are investigating. The college needs to be more open with the community. Bad news isn’t fun to hand out, but sitting on it doesn’t bolster trust.

The college also defaulted to “personnel matter” to explain its treatment of Strickland after the attack. He told the Malheur Enterprise he didn’t feel supported by the college, that college officials seemed more interested in having him fill out legal paperwork than in how he was doing and what he needed. College officials more recently said in a statement to us that Strickland’s supervisor and others did reach out to him.

They acknowledge that if Strickland felt neglected, the college needs to do better. Yet they are clinical in explaining why college officials must be restrained: “It’s hard to insert the human connection without appearing to favor one individual, influence witness testimony or affect the outcome.” How does showing compassion for an injured employee attacked on duty seem favoritism?

Government officials far too often cloak matters involving employees as “personnel matters.” That’s fair if we’re talking about someone under review for poor performance or for breaking technical agency rules. Protecting employee rights in today’s litigious environment makes sense. But those rights don’t ever justify a public agency staying silent about an important matter such as an assault. The public, too, has its rights. — LZ