AP NEWS

Newspaper: University told untrue story about student death

June 3, 2019

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — When an international student attending the University of Missouri-Kansas City was killed last year during a robbery at a restaurant, university officials said publicly that he was at the business to help family friends — rather than working there — because they were concerned the details would affect their international student enrollment, according to a newspaper report.

Sharath Koppu was fatally shot last July at J’s Fish and Chicken Market in Kansas City. Police and his relatives said he was working at the restaurant but university officials announced he was there “assisting family friends.” They stuck to that story until last week, when they acknowledged they didn’t know if the story was accurate, The Kansas City Star reported .

Documents obtained through an open records request show university officials created the false story because they were concerned Koppu, who was from India, was violating his F1 visa by working off campus. That could have caused a federal investigation and put the university’s international student enrollment at risk, The Star reported.

More than 2,100 pages of emails and documents show school administrators continually expressing compassion for Koppu’s family. But they also show how top school officials focused on whether his death could hurt university efforts to increase its lucrative international student population, which has dropped dramatically in recent years.

Joy Stevenson, head of the university’s international student affairs, and her boss, Vice Provost for International Initiatives Kevin Truman, rejected the university public relation staff’s early effort to quote the police department’s account that Koppu was working at the restaurant.

“Let’s not emphasize where he worked. I doubt that he had a work authorization,” Truman wrote.

Stevenson agreed, recommending that the university say he was “assisting a family friend,” and, therefore, was not violating of his visa. She offered no evidence that the statement was true.

Eventually, a public statement signed by Chancellor Mauli Agrawal began this way:

“To the UMKC Community: It is my sad duty to inform you that a member of our community was killed Friday evening during an armed robbery at the restaurant where he was assisting family friends..”

Christopher McKinney, an immigration attorney who helps many international students in the Kansas City area, said the university would be required to report any student working on an F1 visa the Department of Homeland Security. Failure to do so could lead to an investigation of the international student program.

Truman said last week that he’s not aware of any investigation of the school.

When asked about the university’s decision to remove all mention of Koppu working at the restaurant, Truman wrote: “I did not want the Chancellor or UMKC to give the impression that he was working for pay there, as UMKC didn’t know the facts surrounding this relationship, nor does UMKC monitor students’ personal lives.”

Anne Spencer, vice chancellor for strategic marketing and communications, said some faculty in the School of Computing and Engineering recalled hearing that the family that owned the restaurant had befriended Koppu.

“Given that we had no knowledge of whether he was an actual paid employee, we changed the wording to ‘assisting family friends,’” she wrote.

The controversy comes amid a continuing drop in international students in the U.S., including at Missouri-Kansas City, where international student enrollment peaked at 1,442 in 2015, with most of those students were from India. By 2018 the international student numbers dropped to 1,039 and the Indian student population dropped from 709 to 312. A loss of 397 international students represents an estimated loss of about $5 million per semester based on current tuition rates and each student carrying a 12-credit-hour study schedule.

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Information from: The Kansas City Star, http://www.kcstar.com

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