Smith College unveils new policies to reduce ‘bias-related’ incidents 

  • A couple takes photos as they walk through a deserted Smith Campus on January 9, 2015. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/30/2019 6:59:59 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Smith College has announced several new policies meant to reduce the likelihood of “bias-related incidents” on campus, including changes to campus policing.

The changes come after a staffer called police on a black student worker, Oumou Kanoute, who was on her lunch break in a residence hall this past summer. The incident sparked protests and conversations about racism on campus. A third-party report that Smith commissioned found no wrongdoing on the part of the college employee, though some critics said that finding was because of the college’s substandard guidance on how to deal with race-based suspicious person situations.

The changes are focused on three areas: policing, employee training and education initiatives across campus. In an email to students, staff and faculty, college President Kathleen McCartney said the policies — particularly the changes related to policing — were informed by recommendations made by the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, which has been representing Kanoute after the incident.

“As you know, a painful event led us to reassess and recommit to making Smith a place where each of us feels included and valued. I have heard from so many members of the Smith community—students, staff, faculty and alumnae—about ways to move forward,” McCartney wrote. “Many efforts are underway, including training workshops to help us all learn how to have critical conversations to advance our inclusion and equity goals.”

Smith College declined to make McCartney available for an interview Wednesday to answer any questions about the new policies. Stacey Schmeidel, the college's director of media relations, instead referred the Gazette to McCartney's email and the college's statement announcing the policies.

Attempts to reach Kanoute for comment on Wednesday were unsuccessful.  

Police interactions

In order to guide police interactions on campus, the college’s new policies relate to how police dispatchers and officers respond to suspicious activity calls. Dispatchers must gather enough information from callers in order to inform officers about a person’s behaviors instead of their appearance. All enforcement actions should be based on “reasonable suspicion or probable cause, as supported by articulable facts, circumstances and conclusions,” according to Smith’s press release.

The new policies also require police to train annually on preventing profiling and improve mechanisms for the college to address any encounter that might be seen as profiling.

“This is a crucial step in the right direction and one that other colleges and universities should take note of,” ACLU lawyer Carl Takei said. “Smith is hardly the only college that is facing the issue of campus police being weaponized against their own students.”

As another example, Takei pointed to the case of Reg Andrade, a black employee at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who was walking to work across campus in September when somebody decided to call the police on him. The ACLU is also representing Andrade, and the organization is pushing for other institutions of higher education to change their own campus policies as part of the ACLU’s “Living While Black on Campus” campaign.

“When colleges and universities have their own campus police forces and then recruit both students and employees of color to come to their campuses, they need to adopt policies that ensure that people of color will be able to live and work as full members of the campus community instead of constantly having their place in the community threatened or questioned by campus authorities,” Takei said.

In addition to the changes to policing, the college has given online anti-bias training to more than 80 percent of employees, with many other employees receiving in-person training on issues like identifying and responding to bias and microaggressions. 

Smith College has also partnered with a culture change firm called The Collaborations Group to develop a day-long immersive learning conference on April 10. Classes, meetings and events will be canceled that day in order for everyone on campus to attend.

The new policies address some of the changes that Kanoute and others on campus have called for, though some of those students’ demands are not included in Wednesday’s announcement. 

In a September blog post on the ACLU’s website, Kanoute called for Smith to better commemorate Otelia Cromwell, the first African American graduate of Smith, and for the school to examine “the racism that shows up in the naming of campus buildings.” Kanoute also called for the college to provide “affinity housing” —  dedicated housing for students of color.

Takei, of the ACLU, noted that Smith administrators have acknowledged that they still have work to do to create a more inclusive campus. He said students of color have previously flagged issues on campus that need addressing and encouraged the college to listen to what student activists of color are saying.

“This is really about listening to the priorities that the students put forward,” Takei said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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