The family of Zhifan Dong, a Chinese student at the University of Utah who was killed allegedly by an ex-boyfriend and fellow student, is speaking out after the school released a pile of public records that appear to show a multitude of failures to heed her calls for help.
Dong’s father, Mingsheng Dong, and her mother, Junfang Shen, told NBC Asian America in their first media interview that on top of the pain of losing their 19-year-old daughter, they felt blindsided by the school’s inaction and emphasized she had reached out to university authorities for help before going to police.
The parents said school officials initially told them they had done everything they could to protect Dong, but neglected to disclose a number of apparent missteps made by housing staff, as revealed in the documents the school shared, such as not alerting school police about the man’s arrest just a month before following an altercation with Dong.
The couple learned about what they said were the university’s failures in the news, and later in statements from the police and district attorneys.
“Before the school released the investigation report, we thought the school had done the right things but could not protect her. The university told us it did everything it could for Zhifan, but this turned out not to be true,” Dong’s parents said in an email through a translator.
“Before publishing the document/file, they didn’t tell us about their failures. We had to learn about it from the news. Zhifan asked for help from the school. The school didn’t involve the police for a while,” the parents said.
In a statement to NBC, the University of Utah said it has “publicly acknowledged shortcomings in its handling of the case,” including “delays in notifying police; unclear processes and staff trainings; and ‘insufficient and unprofessional’ internal communication.”
“Zhifan Dong’s death was a tragedy and illustrates the global problem of intimate partner violence — a societal issue that transcends nationality,” the university said. “It’s heartbreaking and we extend our condolences to her family and loved ones.”
Now the parents are pursuing legal action against the school, while grieving the loss of their only child.
“We can’t get over it. It has been so difficult for us, mentally and physically,” the parents said. “We still don’t want to believe that this really happened, and we often dream that she’s back with us.
Dong, a freshman, was found dead on Feb. 11 in a downtown Salt Lake City motel room with her former boyfriend, Haoyu Wang, also an international student from China. He later confessed to giving her a fatal dose of heroin and fentanyl. Wang has been charged with murder and pleaded not guilty through his attorney, Joseph C. Alamilla. He will face a competency hearing on Aug. 8.
“There are mental health issues concerning everyone involved in this case that will need to be addressed prior to trial,” Alamilla previously said to NBC News.
The attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
University documents, which were made public after The Salt Lake City Tribune pushed for public records on the case to be released, showed that members of the housing staff had known for weeks that Dong was in a dangerous situation with Wang, 26.
According to the documents, on Jan. 14 Dong notified the school housing department that Wang had been arrested by Salt Lake City Police two days earlier for assaulting her during an altercation. However, the documents show housing employees didn’t alert school police about the arrest until about a month later — after Dong had gone missing.
In addition to showing missteps in the handling of domestic violence reports, the released documents raised questions about the school’s ability to support international students. Records revealed that the housing staff repeatedly confused Dong’s name with Wang’s, and mistakenly called the number of another student who shared the same name as Wang.
“We felt betrayed and lied to,” Dong’s parents said. “This is bureaucratic arrogance, contempt for life, and an unforgivable mistake.”
The university told NBC that staff attempted to communicate with Dong, Wang and their families at least 25 times between the altercation on Jan. 12 and Dong’s death. But both students and Dong’s mother rejected their offers for help.
The school added that it had taken “aggressive corrective action,” including disciplining three housing employees and strengthening staff training and reporting processes in its Housing and Residential Education office.
Dong, 49, and Shen, 48, are both government workers who live in China’s Henan province. They said Zhifan was a smart, studious and kind person who loved small animals and dreamed of working for a gaming company after graduating college. Though she often felt homesick, Dong and Shen said their daughter adapted quickly and grew to love life in Utah.
The couple said they’ve been relying on friends and family to distract themselves from their grief. But the media spotlight on their daughter’s death, both in the U.S. and in China, has made the effort difficult. While they’ve received an outpouring of online support, they said they’ve also had to deal with a stream of “sarcastic and tormenting” comments.
Brian C. Stewart, the lawyer representing the Dong family, said that in a relationship involving domestic violence, a victim faces the most danger when trying to leave or report her abuser.
“Authorities receiving that information must be there to provide protection, when the victim makes that leap of faith,” he said in a statement. “The University of Utah utterly failed Zhifan in this regard, exposing her to increased risk of fatal violence for over three weeks before involving university police.”
Dong is the second University of Utah student in four years to be killed after filing domestic violence reports to school officials. Lauren McCluskey, a track athlete who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 2018, had called campus police more than 20 times to report harassment. In 2020, the McCluskeys secured a multimillion-dollar settlement from the university through Parker & McConkie, the law firm now representing the Dong family.
In past statements, the university acknowledged that McCluskey’s murder “was a brutal, senseless and preventable tragedy,” but did not admit wrongdoing as part of the settlement.
Dong’s parents said that the school, at the very least, should have realized their daughter was in danger and noticed immediately when she stopped going to class and disappeared from her dorm.
“We hope that the University of Utah can better protect students, especially international students,” they said, “so that no one else will have to pay the price of life because of their ineffective safety measures.”