ACLU to aid Smith student in apparent profiling incident

  • Chapin House on the campus of Smith College in Northampton. Photographed Thursday, August 2, 2018.

Staff Writer
Published: 9/7/2018 4:08:59 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has announced that it will represent Oumou Kanoute, the black Smith College student who was on lunch break when a staffer called campus police on her.

In a statement on Thursday, the ACLU said it will help Kanoute, currently a sophomore, seek a restorative justice process with two people involved in calling the police on her while she was resting in a common area. The organization said the incident raises concerns of racial profiling, in which people of color are targeted for “living while black.”

“Students should be able to eat lunch without being reported under suspicion of ‘not belonging,’ ” the ACLU’s statement reads. “Students should be able to nap in common areas after arduous academic studies without accusations. And prospective students should be able to visit a campus without being questioned by police. We hope these grave mistreatments serve as teachable moments for schools nationwide.”

In addition to restorative justice, the ACLU said it will help Kanoute seek policy changes to ensure her experience isn’t repeated, as well as “further steps to address the history of Black students and the legacy of institutional racism at Smith.”

Smith College declined to make President Kathleen McCartney available on Friday to discuss the ACLU’s involvement, saying that she was traveling. In a statement, the school said that no lawsuits have been filed.

“An ACLU representative is providing counsel to the student and has been in communication with the college since late August,” the statement reads. “We welcome the input of all involved parties as we continue to move toward creating a more inclusive community.”

Attempts to reach Kanoute on Friday were unsuccessful.

The incident in question occurred on July 31, when an employee called police on Kanoute, who was on her lunch break from a summer job as a teaching assistant and residential adviser. In a transcript of the call released by the college, the employee said that Kanoute looked “out of place.” Kanoute took to social media to draw attention to the episode.

“This person didn’t try to bring their concerns forward to me, but instead decided to call the police,” she said at the time. “I did nothing wrong. I wasn’t making any noise or bothering anyone. All I did was be black.”

National media descended on Smith after Kanoute’s post went viral, and afterward McCartney apologized to Kanoute and announced changes to campus police policies and mandatory anti-bias training for staff. College officials announced that the unnamed employee had been placed on paid leave while the incident is investigated by the Sanghavi Law Office.

In a previous interview with the Gazette, Kanoute said that her first demand has always been that the administration and the employee meet with and apologize to her face-to-face.

McCartney, in a letter on Aug. 30 to the campus community, said that she had reached out to Kanoute to apologize and offer a meeting, and that Dean Susan Etheredge has contacted Kanoute as well.

“While the investigation of the incident is ongoing, both the student and the staff member have been invited to participate in mediation, a voluntary process that can offer a path forward for both parties,” the letter reads.

With students returning to school, however, this week has been marked by protest over the incident. In a video of Wednesday’s convocation, students linked arms and chanted in the middle of the event: “When black students are under attack, what do you do? Stand up, fight back.”

McCartney was on the stage with Student Government Association President Bri Barrett, who said that what happened to Kanoute is a “catalyst for needed change.”

“Students of color, especially Black Smithies, have reached a point of exhaustion because of the systemic oppression that we have to endure on a daily basis while also being students at an academically rigorous institution like Smith College,” Barrett said, according to a transcript of the event provided by Smith College.

“As I said in my August 2nd letter, I recognize that Smith falls short even as we continue to make progress on inclusion, diversity and equity,” McCartney said, adding that her administration has been working during the summer on new initiatives and programming. “As President, I, too, want to be guided by the voices of this community — especially the voices of people of color — as we work towards interpersonal and systemic change.”

The third-party investigation into the call to police is still ongoing, and the law firm has yet to release any findings or a date when those findings can be expected.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at
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