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A black student at Prairie State College, a community college located outside Chicago, told the college’s trustees last month that he believes he was racially profiled by a campus police officer while trying to attend his first class of the semester. Prairie State officials say the officer did nothing wrong, but some of the college’s faculty and staff members are expressing concern that the board chair was combative and too quick to dismiss the student’s complaints.
“Officers should not stop and question students because of their ethnicity or the fact they think they seem out of place,” an anonymous letter, signed “faculty and staff,” stated. “We ask, would this have happened if the student were white? We don’t think it would have.”
The student, D’Marco Griffin, said he was entering the college’s health-tech building on Aug. 23 when he was stopped by a campus police officer. Still wearing his blue work vest, Griffin had arrived early after concluding a shift at the local Walmart so he would have time to locate his classroom. Within minutes of entering the building, the student was approached by a campus police officer.
Griffin said the officer told him that he “looked out of place,” and that something “seemed off” about him being in the building. The student explained he was there for a class, and the officer asked him to provide identification. When he reached into his pocket to retrieve his ID, Griffin said, the officer “tensed and sternly instructed [him] not to reach into” his pockets.
As another officer arrived, Griffin said, he was told to put his hands behind his back. The officer patted Griffin down and asked if the student had any items on his person he should know about. Griffin told him he was carrying his box cutter from work, and the officer temporarily confiscated it, as well as Griffin's wallet and class schedule. After confirming Griffin was a student, the officer returned the wallet and schedule and walked him to his class.
The next week, Griffin attended a board meeting and told the trustees about the incident, according to a video of the meeting.
“It was a very humiliating experience,” Griffin said during the meeting, adding that he felt sick to his stomach during the incident and that he worried about his safety when the officer ordered him not to reach into his pockets. The officer never drew any weapons on Griffin, but the college's police force is a sworn agency and many of its officers are armed. A short police report of the incident largely confirms Griffin's account, but it does not contain details about what the officer may have said to the student during the encounter.
Throughout Griffin’s time speaking during the meeting, the board’s chair, Jacqueline Agee, repeatedly interrupted the student.
Griffin: This is just an ordeal that I know definitely could have went very less --
Agee: What do you mean by that?
Griffin: It could have went badly, seeing --
Agee: Why is that?
Griffin: Seeing as how, you know, myself and the officer having different perspectives. I’m just on my way to class and he perceived me as a threat, if you will. If I had just failed to properly comply when he told me not to reach for anything, even after he asked for some type of identification, I could have easily not been here today.
Griffin: Due to perceived notions on his end, him seeming to be on the defensive with me giving him virtually no reason to be defensive.
When Griffin began to hand out a written statement to the board members and conclude his remarks, Agee allowed him to distribute the documents but interrupted him again. “You’ve gone way over your time, D’Marco,” she said. “I’m letting you go because it’s usually cut down to three minutes, but I’m letting you go, so you need to wrap it up.”
Griffin spoke for about four minutes.
In a statement Monday, the college said that administrators first heard of the incident through a post on the student's Facebook page, and that the college's dean met with him the following day. Following the meeting, the dean "felt the situation had been resolved," the college stated, but Griffin addressed the Board of Trustees later that evening. The college said it had not seen the anonymous letter signed by "faculty and staff" until Monday. Andrea Small, a spokeswoman for Prairie State College, said the letter was not authored by the college's faculty or staff unions.
"Because the board takes students’ concerns very seriously, the board chair agreed to give Mr. Griffin the floor that evening, despite the fact that, according to board policy, the board is allowed four business days’ notice before allowing a member of the public to address the board on items not included in the agenda," the college said. "College officials have reached out to Mr. Griffin through various channels since he addressed the board, but to date, Mr. Griffin has declined to meet with any of those individuals. It is the opinion of the college that the officer acted appropriately, given the circumstances."
Griffin said in an interview this week that he is planning on meeting with college officials, and that he would like to see the college adopt "a set of standards for how police officers and students should interact."
Toward the end of the board of trustees meeting, Prairie State College’s police chief, George Pfotenhauer, also defended the officer’s actions, saying he had done nothing wrong or illegal. According to Pfotenhauer and the police report, Griffin entered the building through a door that was normally locked by that time in the evening. Pfotenhauer acknowledged that Griffin would not have known not to use the door, as it was accidentally left unlocked that particular evening, but said that it was the student using this entrance that worried the police officer.
“He didn’t say anything derogatory, he didn’t say anything inflammatory," Pfotenhauer said, also noting that the officer did not touch the student, "other than a quick pat down.”
“And he had a knife,” Agee responded, referencing the student's box cutter he had in his pocket from work. “Through that [stop], he found a knife.”
When another board member clarified that it was a box cutter, and attempted to explain that the college should provide comfort to the student for being stopped and searched when doing nothing wrong, Agee expressed concern about the safety of police officers in such situations.
“When the police officer gives the comfort level to the wrong guy, that’s when the police officer doesn’t go home at night,” Agee, who is a former police officer and board member of the Police Benevolent & Protective Association of Illinois, said. “What if he was a bad guy with an AK [assault rifle]? I’m going to give him comfort?”
The anonymous letter this week stated that faculty and staff members sat “paralyzed in shock as [Agee] glared across the room at Mr. Griffin, interrupting him and trying to make the student feel incompetent.” That Prairie State College is a predominantly black institution -- with 57 percent of its students being black or African-American -- made the incident all the more disturbing, they wrote.
“Working in a diverse environment at a predominately black institution brings both opportunities and challenges,” the statement said. “As our college becomes increasingly diverse, an understanding of culture and its effect on communication is more important than ever. These behaviors have a devastating impact on people’s physical and mental well-being, as well as their ability to fully engage as members of our learning community.”
In a statement this week, Agee said she was not being dismissive of the student, and was only asking him questions "to further understand what had happened" during the incident.
“Prairie State College supports its police officers, as employees of the institution, as well as public servants whose mission is to keep students, faculty and staff safe," Agee said. "I echo the college’s assertion that the officer involved in this encounter did nothing wrong, and acted only as the college would have expected any of its officers to act under the same circumstances.”
Note: This article has been updated to include a statement from Jacqueline Agee, the chair of Prairie State College's Board of Trustees.