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Panel applauds UMass Dartmouth handling of Marathon investigation

Four months after the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth learned that the surviving Boston Marathon bombing suspect was one of its students, an independent task force has praised university officials for keeping students safe and cooperating with federal investigators.

On April 19, shortly after learning the identity of suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as he was sought by police, campus officials evacuated more than 9,000 students, faculty, and staff while aiding state and federal law enforcement authorities who had arrived on campus.

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Tsarnaev was captured that night, and the campus resumed normal operations two days later, but the accused terrorist’s actions continued to reverberate on campus, especially when two of his college friends were charged with removing evidence from his room and one with lying to investigators.

As questions arose in ensuing weeks over whether the university had done enough to keep students secure, Divina Grossman, the school’s chancellor, announced formation of a task force to assess the university’s emergency response and student policy.

In findings released Thursday, panelists gave the administration high marks.

“UMass Dartmouth handled a chaotic and critical event in an exemplary manner and, in doing so, has provided the higher education community with some remarkable lessons,” concluded the panel, led by Waded Cruzado, president of Montana State University. “The task force believes that the state of Massachusetts and the nation should feel satisfied and proud about the way this campus managed what was truly a challenge of monumental proportions.”

In their report, panelists praised recent policy changes at the university, including preventing students with more than $500 in unpaid tuition from enrolling in courses and ensuring that students with less than a C average are dismissed after two semesters of no improvement, rather than three or four. Tsarnaev had been a sophomore at UMass Dartmouth, despite owing $20,000 in unpaid tuition and failing several courses.

The panel was not charged with determining if Tsarnaev’s alleged actions could have been foreseen by faculty or staff, but task force members said that after dozens of interviews with campus officials and law enforcement, they found no indication that Tsarnaev had aroused suspicion.

“This tragedy could have happened to any university in the country,” Cruzado said. “Our central takeaway was a profound sense of admiration for how this campus managed such a totally unforeseen event. The more we researched and spoke to people, the greater our admiration grew.”

Much of the panel’s recommendations centered on improving the resources of campus security, including upgrading the campus surveillance camera system, equipping the library as an emergency operations center, and bulking up police staff. Panelists also suggested a relocation of the school’s Department of Public Safety, which currently sits on several large generators of a power plant.

The panel said all the university’s campuses should establish a task force to identify consistent protocols and services for international students. Just 368 of the 9,200 undergraduate and graduate students are international, though many are immigrants or children of immigrants.

Grossman said the university will review these recommendations and, based on funding, decide which are feasible in coming months and years.

Panelist James Bueermann — president of the Police Foundation, a nonpartison think tank in Washington, D.C. — said police must continue to strengthen relationships with students and community members so that no one fears coming to them with information.

“We want to sensitize the system so that people who do see something amiss have enough confidence in the system to pick up the phone and say something,” he said. “If we know these sorts of crises can happen anywhere and most are unlikely to see it coming, the logical thing to do is make sure people who do see something coming go to the police.”

Tsarnaev returned to campus one day after the April 15 bombings, allegedly stopping at the university’s gym and sleeping in his dorm room, before rejoining his brother, Tamerlan. Tamerlan was killed and Dzhokhar taken into custody after a massive manhunt April 19. A shoot-out between police and the brothers in Watertown led to the death of Tamerlan and the arrest of Dzhokar.

Three of Dzhokar Tsaranev’s friends, all former UMass Dartmouth students, face federal charges of disposing of evidence from Tsaranev’s dorm room. Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov are accused of obstruction of justice; Robel Phillipos is accused of lying to investigators.

Grossman said these past months have been a testament to the university’s strength and resilience.

“There is clearly a strong sense of community here,” she said. “I’ve just completed my first year as chancellor, and I feel very proud of this school and what everyone here has done to come together.”

Nikita Lalwani can be reached at nikita.lalwani@globe.com.
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