In 2009, the responses to two Iowa college students who went missing highlighted differences in the way universities handle missing persons cases and the challenges in dealing with adults who go missing.

Policies haven’t changed much since then at Iowa’s three public universities, officials said this week, although social media growth allows word to spread more quickly and updated requirements under the Clery Act lend more transparency to campus missing persons policies.

Police departments at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa still don’t have a uniform policy for notifying the public of a missing person.

The original story:
When Students Go Missing: Responses Differed In These Iowa Cases,
Jim Malewitz, May 29, 2010

Reporter’s Response:
Impact Of First IowaWatch Story 5 Years Ago Remains With Reporter,
Jim Malewitz, May 28, 2015

“Each case is going to be unique. There’s not an exact way to do it, there’s no numerical equation to determine when to send out notifications,” Rob Bowers, associate director and deputy chief for the Iowa State University Police Department, said.

The Iowa State University community rallied when student Jon Lacina disappeared six years ago. School officials released pictures and contacted local, state and federal organizations. But when University of Iowa student Jacques Similhomme vanished that same year, his father searched for his son alone.

Both students eventually were found dead. The difference in how these two public universities responded to the missing students sparked the first IowaWatch investigation.

Bowers said cases are a balancing act between concerns about students’ safety and their right to privacy, which can make each case tricky.

“They are adults and have the rights to make their own decisions and they do sometimes leave and make short trips,” he said.

Iowa State University Police Department, Rob Bowers
Rob Bowers, deputy chief, Iowa State University Police Department

He cited two examples from the past semester, when families asked the department for help tracking down students. It turned out that the students had become estranged from their families.

The University of Iowa’s written policy contains a cautionary statement: “Please be advised that a resident’s absence from a dormitory building or from a University-owned student apartment is not usually considered an emergency, as residents attend classes and participate in University functions outside of University housing.”

David Visin, interim assistant vice president and director of public safety at the University of Iowa, said police perform initial checks at hospitals and jails and with family and friends when a report comes in of a missing person.

“When we are starting to exhaust those and getting more concerned we’ll put something out,” he said.

Like at Iowa State, sending information to the university community depends on the situation. “We will discuss it with strategic communication to make sure that the information going out is correct and it’s all the same,” Visin said.

University of Iowa Police Department, David Visin
David Visin, interim assistant vice president and director of public safety, University of Iowa

The department had 34 missing person cases last year. Most came from the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in instances when individuals left against medial advice and hospital officials worried about their safety, Visin said.

“Usually we won’t issue an alert because we know where they are likely to be,” he said. “We found every missing person we had. Typically they go home.”

Visin said he couldn’t comment on what was done in the 2009 case because he wasn’t involved but noted differences with the department’s response last September when an Iowa State international student, Tong Shao, went missing during a trip to Iowa City.

One big change: social media.

“In five years, technology has changed. Twitter is more effective, as are Facebook and other ways to get information out,” Visin said.

More people are online and greater numbers are using social media as a way to keep up with the news. As of 2014, 23 percent of online adults reported using Twitter and 71 percent reported using Facebook, a Pew Research Center report found.

A 2014 Lexis Nexis study showed law enforcement’s use of social media increased dramatically since 2012, with eight out of 10 respondents saying they used social media. However, more than half of respondents said their agencies did not have a formal social media process.

New information about missing ISU student:

— U of Iowa Police (@UIowa_Police) September 26, 2014

Although Shao’s case was handled largely by the Iowa City and Ames police departments, Visin said his department made use of social media to spread information about Shao and keep the public updated on the case.

Shao, who was reported missing Sept. 17, had been visiting her boyfriend in Iowa City. Her body was found Sept. 26 in the trunk of her Toyota Camry at the Dolphin Lake Point Enclave in Iowa City. The boyfriend, Xiangnan Li, still a person of interest in the case, is believed to be in China after flying there Sept. 8.

Neither university police department was registered on Facebook or Twitter in 2009 when Lacina and Similhomme went missing.

“We have a presence on Facebook and Twitter almost every day now. In 2009, that just wasn’t the case,” Bowers, of Iowa State, said.

Chief Stewart and Officer @agreiter “go live” with social media for @ISUPD!
— IowaStateU Police (@ISUPD) July 10, 2013

Iowa State police joined Twitter and Facebook in July 2013. The accounts have racked up more than 7,500 followers and more than 5,000 likes. The University of Iowa police department has a longer history, joining both sites in 2010, but gaining fewer followers and likes than Iowa State.

The University of Northern Iowa police department does not have a Twitter, Facebook or other social media account.

Another change since 2009 is a requirement under the Clery Act that missing student policies be published as part of an annual safety report.

As of October 1, 2010, colleges and universities were required to include missing person notification procedures and policies as part of annual security reports under the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act amendment.

Read the reports:
University of Northern Iowa — Annual Security and Fire Safety Report 2014

University of Iowa — The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Crime Statistics and Fire Safety Report for 2014

Iowa State University — Safety and You: Annual Security and Fire Safety Report

The policies among the three Regent universities are largely similar, including initiating an investigation, sending notifications to local, state and federal organizations once it is determined that the student has been missing for over 24 hours and informing the student’s emergency contact or guardian.

There is no mention of notifying communities, although a more in-depth directive from the Iowa State police department includes instructions to disseminate information “as soon as possible” through one or more routes including flyers and media announcements.

Helen Haire, University of Northern Iowa chief of police and director of public safety, said the department doesn’t have any specific policy for using social media.

“We would work through university relations to do that and it would depend upon the situation,” she said.

She said the department hasn’t had to send out information about a missing person in her three years there. Although the department doesn’t keep statistics on the number of missing persons reports, she said it dealt with two reports in 2014 and both individuals were located within a few hours.

Source: University of Iowa Department of PUblic Safety Annual Report 2014 and Rob Bowers, associate director and deputy chief for the Iowa State University Police Department. Helen Haire, University of Northern Iowa chief of police and director of public safety, said the department did not keep data on missing person reports.
Source: University of Iowa Department of Public Safety Annual Report 2014 and Rob Bowers, associate director and deputy chief for the Iowa State University Police Department. University of Northern Iowa chief of police and director of public safety, Helen Haire, said the department did not keep data on missing person reports.

The University of Iowa saw an uptick in reports of missing persons over the past three years. In 2010 and 2011, reports were in the single digits, but the numbers grew to a peak of 34 in 2014.

Visin said he couldn’t pinpoint a precise reason for the increase, but said it might be due to the addition of a police presence at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics emergency room a few years ago.

Iowa State saw a decline in the number of reports of missing persons, from a peak of 14 in 2011 to three reports in each of the past two years. Bowers said the department hasn’t changed anything that would account for a decrease.

Because the Shao case was handled largely by local law enforcement, none of the three university departments has faced a missing person report that triggered a search or resulted in a death since 2009.

This IowaWatch story was published by The Des Moines Register, Sioux City Journal and Iowa City Press-Citizen under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners. To learn how IowaWatch’s nonprofit journalism is funded and how you can support it, go to this link.

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