Nearly three weeks have passed, and the mystery of the missing student newspapers at Radford University in southwestern Virginia remains unsolved.

The Sept. 18 edition of the Tartan had more bad news in it than typical for the school’s weekly paper. Two tragic stories dominated the front page. One was about the new 49-year-old head of the school’s criminal-justice department, Steve Tibbetts, who died unexpectedly a few weeks into his job at the university. The other story was about a freshman, Aris Eduardo Lobo-Perez, who died in a regional jail cell Sept. 12 following an arrest on campus the night before on a charge of public swearing or intoxication.

The 1,500 copies of the paper were delivered the afternoon of Sept. 18 to 32 distribution boxes across campus. The next morning, Dylan Lepore, the paper’s 21-year-old editor, noticed that several stands were empty. That wasn’t normal. Soon he learned that papers were gone from 22 stands. About 1,000 papers had disappeared. Most of the stands that still had papers were in locked buildings that were not easily accessible.

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What happened to the missing papers remains a mystery. What is known is that administrators at the state university — which has an enrollment of about 8,000 undergraduate students — were concerned about a photo that ran on the front page accompanying the story about Tibbetts. The photo, which was provided to the newspaper by Tibbetts’s wife after his death, showed Tibbetts and his high-school-age daughter smiling and standing underneath a small street sign that read “Tibbetts St. Dead End.”

Lepore said when he saw the photograph he “thought it was sweet — just a really nice photo of Tibbetts and his daughter.”

The day the papers disappeared, administrators emailed Lepore and asked him to come in for a meeting. The email did not say what would be discussed.

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At the meeting the next day, Lepore said he was told by administration officials — including Susan Trageser, Radford’s vice president for student affairs, and Ashley Schumaker, vice president for university relations — that they had received complaints about the photo of Tibbetts. Lepore said he was told that the photo was “not the best choice” and that the stories could “trigger” people.

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“I told them people are not going to like everything we publish, and we’re not going to please everyone,” Lepore said in an interview. “It’s a hard topic, and it’s unfortunate that it happened, but it’s our obligation to tell these stories.”

In a statement emailed Friday to The Washington Post, Caitlyn Scaggs, associate vice president for university relations, said that during the meeting, “it was noted that, for those grieving, the photo, even if shared with the best of intentions on the part of The Tartan, could have resulted in a range of emotions.”

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Lepore said administrators asked him and the newspaper’s faculty advisers, Leigh Anne Kelley and Geoff White, how the administration could help the paper and proposed sitting in on the publication’s weekly meeting.

In an interview, Lepore said that he welcomes advice but that he and the paper’s advisers told the administrators they should not sit in on the weekly meetings and cautioned them against establishing any system of prior review by the administration of articles in the publication. The meeting ended amicably, Lepore said.

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“The meeting was structured to determine ways in which the University can strengthen its partnership with the student newspaper, including the offer to establish regular meetings to share University updates and pitch story ideas,” Scaggs told The Post in an email Thursday. “The University did not suggest and will not be requesting prior review of any student media, including The Tartan.”

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In the days since the meeting, Lepore and his staff of 19 student journalists have been trying to find out what happened to the papers. Lepore said he has given his staff one directive: “Don’t speculate at all.”

“Everyone on campus has ideas about what happened or who took them,” Lepore said. “I have no opinion on what happened until I have all the facts.”

In a Sept. 24 email to Tartan reporter Jeremy Moser, Schumaker said the university doesn’t have any information about what happened to the papers and “did not orchestrate and/or participate in the removal of any newspapers.”

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On Friday, Scaggs responded to a Post inquiry asking if anyone in the administration or any Radford employee ordered or personally removed the copies of the paper that went missing.

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“The administration did not order or remove copies of The Tartan,” Scaggs wrote. “The Radford University Police Department is reviewing this matter and seeking to determine any independent involvement by students, faculty or staff.”

Lepore has sent Freedom of Information Act requests to the university police department to obtain surveillance video of the buildings where the paper’s distribution boxes are located.

He took over as editor of the Tartan in his freshman year and has run it ever since, often spending more than 25 hours a week in the office — and occasionally sleeping there — to make sure it publishes on time and is available to his fellow students.

“I don’t get too emotional,” Lepore said, “but when you put all your blood, sweat and tears into this and then someone steals all your newspapers, that kind of hurts.”

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