The call came from the mother of a prospective student on a tour of Colorado State University on Monday. She called nine-one-one for the campus police and reported (according to audio released by the university) that she was concerned about "two young men that joined our tour who weren't part of the tour." She said that the young men "really stand out." She said that they didn't answer questions about their names or intended fields of study. Their clothing, she said, had "weird symbolism."
Campus police responded and took the two men aside, removing them from the ongoing tour. The students explained that they had been late for the tour, having driven to campus from New Mexico, that they were interested in possibly applying to the university and that they were shy.
Police officers had them empty their pockets and patted down their pocket areas to see if anything was left in their pockets. The video below, released by the university, has no audio for the first 30 seconds, and it shows that the students cooperated fully, answering the officer's questions promptly. They were told they could rejoin the tour, but the group had already left, and the tour leader was unaware the two had left the group and so had led the group away by the time the officers said that the young men could rejoin the tour. They instead made the long drive back to New Mexico. They had traveled seven hours to visit Colorado State.
That two young Native American men could be pulled from a tour for police questioning on the basis of a call from one woman who didn't report that they had done anything remotely illegal has upset many at Colorado State and nationally. Many have noted similarities to the incident last month when Starbucks employees in Philadelphia called police about two black men who were waiting for a friend. And the incident has renewed discussion over just how inclusive colleges are to those who might already not feel welcome.
As many have noted, students join admissions tours late all the time. Some students are chatty with others on the tour and others aren't. But these behaviors are all pretty standard for teenagers and not seen as cause for calling the police.
Tony Frank, president of Colorado State, on Friday issued a statement in which he said he was deeply upset by what happened. "Two young men, through no fault of their own, wound up frightened and humiliated because another campus visitor was concerned about their clothes and overall demeanor, which appears to have simply been shyness," wrote Frank.
"The very idea that someone -- anyone -- might 'look' like they don’t belong on a CSU admissions tour is anathema. People of all races, gender identities, orientations, cultures, religions, heritages, and appearances belong here. As long as you want to earn a great education surrounded by people with the same goal who come from every part of our state, our country, and our world, then you belong here. And if you’re uncomfortable with a diverse and inclusive academic environment, then you probably have a better fit elsewhere."
Frank said the admissions office was examining steps it could take to avoid confusion in the future about who is part of a tour. For example, tour participants may be given badges or lanyards to identify them.
But he also said that the incident pointed to the need for self-examination by everyone at Colorado State on reactions to people who may look different from themselves.
"What can we learn from it to make ourselves and our community more just?" Frank asked. "It seems to me that we can all examine our conscience about the times in our own lives when we’ve crossed the street, avoided eye contact, or walked a little faster because we were concerned about the appearance of someone we didn’t know but who was different from us. That difference often, sadly, includes race. We have to be alert to this, look for it, recognize it -- and stop it. We simply have got to expect and to be better; our children and our world deserve it and demand it."
As to the two Native American students, Frank said that he had been trying -- so far without success -- to reach them. "Our hope is to speak with the family of the young men and to, at a minimum, reimburse their expenses and offer them another opportunity to visit our campus as VIP guests if they have any interest in doing so. At this point, we are attempting to make that contact through social media as we have not been successful through other means," he said.
The student tour guide posted a letter to the Native American students' mother in which she said that their behavior was not the least bit threatening or out of the ordinary. "I cannot believe someone on my tour interpreted what your sons 'did' (nothing) as suspicious. When they joined my tour, minutes after I left, I was just pleased that they were able to find us. When they didn't introduce themselves, I responded in the way that I have to countless other teenagers who don’t feel comfortable speaking in front of a group of 20 strangers -- with a self-deprecating joke," wrote the tour guide.
"I can’t explain fully the actions of the other mother. I have no idea what she was feeling because she didn’t tell me. But I know racism lives and breathes on my campus and in our country. I know that I am so saddened by how your sons were treated because I want everyone on my tour to feel like they’ve stepped into their new home. I am angry that they had to feel unwelcome because of actions I knew nothing about."
The National Discussion
As word of the incident spread over the last two days, some immediately defended the mother who called the police and said that the Native American students had not suffered any long-term damage.
But others saw the incident as reflecting hostility experienced by minority students and prospective students from the earliest moments of their interactions with higher education.
Tressie McMillan Cottom, an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University who writes extensively on race and higher education, posted a series of comments to Twitter about the significance of what happened at Colorado State.
Shaun Harper, a professor and executive director of the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center, said he has been following the Colorado State case with interest and concern.
He said the incident points to the damage that can be done by parents of other students or prospective students. "Many children learn racism from their parents. Kids grow up to be 17- and 18-year-olds who bring those racist views with them to college," he said. "It therefore doesn’t surprise me that parents and prospective students bring racist attitudes with them on a campus tour."
At last year's annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, Harper challenged the group to think about its own, largely white makeup, and to work to make campuses more inclusive.
"Most students come to college from racially segregated K-12 schools and residential communities," he said Sunday. "They grew up in those places with their parents. Like students, parents have very few interactions with people from racial and ethnic groups that differ from their own. Because of this, they often have racist assumptions about people from other groups. It doesn’t surprise me that parents bring racially problematic views with them when they tour college campuses.”