Former Ann Arbor News reporter switches sides in EMU death

ANNA ELIAS | Staff Writer

When the news broke after the death of an Eastern Michigan student last month, the university had the right guy in the right place to help guide administrators on how to handle the situation

The last time a large homicide investigation enveloped the campus, Geoff Larcom was a hard-digging reporter for The Ann Arbor News, which vigorously chronicled the cover-up of the rape and murder of a student in her dorm room.

Laura Dickinson, 22, from Hastings, was found in her dorm room partially nude and a pillow covering her face by a university custodian after students reported a stench in the residence dorm, Hill Hall, on Dec. 15, 2006. The next day a statement was issued by Eastern informing the students of the death and that no foul play was suspected.

Following the arrest of Orange Taylor III for rape and murder of Dickinson more than 10 weeks after her body was found, the university informed Dickinson’s family, staff, faculty, students and the media of the true circumstances surrounding her death.

The university was ultimately found in violation of the Jeanne Clery Act, a federal law requiring colleges and universities to inform the campuses in a timely manner of crimes that pose a “serious and ongoing threat to students and employees,” according to the Clery Center for Security on Campus.

The way administrators handled the case resulted in firing of the president of the university, the vice president for student affairs and the director and chief of police of the department of public safety.

Now, the Ypsilanti Police Department is investigating the “apparent homicide” of EMU student, Julia Niswender, 23, of Monroe. She was found dead in her locked bedroom in her suite at Peninsular Place Apartments after a roommate called the police for a “welfare check.”

In 2009, Larcom, 54, joined the staff at EMU as executive director of media relations after The Ann Arbor News closed its doors for good. With Larcom’s retiring beat at the paper being EMU, he was already familiar with administrators and news at the university.

In Larcom’s new role, working under the direction of Walter Kraft, vice president of communications, he said the university is attempting to update the campus with information “as quickly, as accurately and completely as we can.”

After receiving the largest fine given by the Department of Education to any college or university of $350,000 for violation of the federal law, Eastern made great strides to improving security on campus, including a new emergency alert system.

 “If you inform the campus in a quick and accurate way, it enables the campus to unite as a community and properly show the grief, and also the condolences, to the family or anybody affected by a crisis,” Larcom said. “Good communication I feel unifies the campus or any other community that is affected by that tragedy.”

The university has sent out numerous emails following the tragedy, as well as holding an informational forum the day following the discovery of the body.

“The media in the initial stages of a crisis is a help, in some ways is your ally,” Larcom said. “It’s your goal to get information out about the nature of the crisis and what’s being done about it, and they have that same purpose.”

Eastern has dedicated a website to the aggregation of investigation updates and media coverage of the ongoing investigation of the homicide by the Ypsilanti Police Department.

“Negative news does happen and people need to know about it,” Larcom said. “Communication builds trust in a community. And the EMU community has acted like a family in trying to show our appreciation and caring for the family in a very difficult situation.”

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