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Smith Finds No Bias in Incident That Roiled Campus

Investigators concluded that the caller provided "legitimate, non-discriminatory" reason for calling campus police on a black student who was eating her lunch in a residence hall living room. Some question the findings.

October 30, 2018
 
Oumou Kanoute

Smith College released a report Monday detailing an independent investigation into a July call to campus police and rejecting the idea that the caller was motivated by clear racial bias. During the call, a Smith College custodial employee reported a black student who was eating lunch and relaxing in the Tyler House residence hall living room. The student “seems to be out of place,” the caller told the dispatcher.

To many at Smith and elsewhere, the call appeared to be another incident of law enforcement questioning black people for doing nothing wrong. And while racial profiling is a national issue, its presence is particularly upsetting to many on college campuses, where people hope for everyone to be treated fairly. And some at Smith are criticizing the report.

Anthony Cruthird and Kate Upatham, two lawyers who have experience with education, discrimination and civil rights law, were asked to “determine whether any employees violated the college’s affirmative action policy.”

Ultimately, the investigators did not find sufficient evidence that the student’s race or color motivated the phone call and concluded that “the caller provided a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for calling the campus police on the day of the incident.”

“The investigative team was not able to identify any other scenario in which the caller had encountered a person of a different race or color in a Smith building where he did not expect to see that person, and he responded differently,” the report read.

The full report is available to the public with names and identifying information redacted per college confidentiality policies.

According to the report, the caller, whose name has not been publicly disclosed, called campus police because “he thought it was strange that a person was in the un-air-conditioned living room of Tyler House, when the nearby dining area was air conditioned, and the building was ‘closed.’”

During her interview with the investigators, Oumou Kanoute, the Smith College sophomore who was reported, said that she was “pretty shaken up” after she was confronted by a campus police officer and “just wanted to get out of there. [She] left and went for a run at the gym.” As she left the building, she said that she “was trying hard not to break down in public.”

In a blog post for the American Civil Liberties Union, which along with the ACLU Massachusetts represents Kanoute, Kanoute wrote about the impact the experience has had on her life.

“A few humiliating minutes later, the questioning was over. But the pain certainly wasn't. As I write this, I still feel overwhelmed with anxiety and sadness over what happened,” she wrote. “I still struggle to leave my room. Walking into the dining hall to grab a meal fills me with dread.”

Kathleen McCartney, Smith College president, emphasized in a letter to students, faculty and staff that the college still had work to do to prevent racial bias on campus.

“I recognize that this event has been painful for the student, and that the publication of this report will bring this pain to the forefront again,” McCartney wrote. “It is clear to me that we need to foster the capacity for person-to-person conversations -- on our campus and in our wider communities -- thereby preventing unnecessary escalation involving the police.”

Cruthird and Upatham interviewed 11 people for the investigation. Among them were the caller, Kanoute, the campus police chief, the dispatcher, the responding officer and the director of building services. Cruthird and Upatham also reviewed photos of the living room, social media posts about the incident and multiple media reports.

Some students and alumni have taken to social media to criticize the report's findings.

“Oh my god my alma mater @smithcollege just sent out a report declaring the recent incident where a college employee called the cops on a Black student for being in a dorm was ‘legitimate’ and ‘non-discriminatory,’” one user tweeted. “This is so humiliating, I hope that student finds peace & support.”

“Reminded today that institutions won't protect you if there's the slimmest chance they can protect themselves instead @smithcollege @presmccartney,” another user tweeted.

“No. Having someone ask a young African American student why she is there face to face is not any better than calling the police on her. SHE BELONGS. Period. End of story. Keep your white fragility in check,” a Facebook user commented.

Carl Takei, senior staff lawyer at the ACLU, issued a statement in response to the investigation’s findings.

“Smith’s investigators determined no policies were violated based on a key finding of its own report: the college’s policies provide abysmal guidance on how to deal with race-based suspicious person situations, for both individuals making the calls and dispatchers fielding them,” Takei wrote. “Oumou should never have been reported to the police. Any reasonable person looking at Oumou on the couch would have seen a black student doing nothing threatening or suspicious.”

The caller was placed on administrative leave in August pending the outcome of the investigation. According to the Smith College website, the college “does not anticipate pursuing any adverse employment action in connection with the events of July 31” because the caller was not found in violation of any Smith policies.

Several other colleges have seen racial profiling incidents in recent years, including Yale University, Colorado State University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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