Controversy roils campus: Smith students, staff critical of administration’s handling of summer incident

  • Smith College campus, Wednesday, September 12, 2018. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Smith College campus, Wednesday, September 12, 2018. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Students are seen on the Smith College campus Wednesday in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Students are seen on the Smith College campus Wednesday in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/13/2018 12:20:21 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Smith College students are back on campus, and a single topic seems to be dominating conversation: the summer day sophomore Oumou Kanoute, who is black, was on lunch break when a Smith employee called campus police saying that she seemed to be “out of place.”

Kanoute took to social media to share her story, which soon attracted the attention of the national news media. Before long, it became the story of the summer on campus. But for many, it’s also the story of the fall, as students return to their dorms and classes, where the mood is “a little weird, I guess,” as Marla Rhuma, a 21-year-old senior from Boston, described it. “And a little tense.”

Rhuma was one of several students the Gazette spoke to as they rushed between buildings to stay out of the constant drizzle Tuesday. Of the 21 stopped, only four students agreed to an interview. The Gazette also reached out to three professors who either didn’t respond by press time or declined to comment for this story. But the campus has been far from quiet. The semester began with a large protest at convocation, during which many students stood up, linked arms and chanted: “When black students are under attack, what do you do? Stand up, fight back.”

“I think it’s really important that the student body is uniting over this,” first-year student Marissa Meadows-McDonnell said.

“I haven’t sensed any hostile energy,” added fellow first-year student Katie O’Dea, who was excited about the protest. “Everyone kind of wants to get involved.”

Well, not everyone.

A longtime staff member, for example, recently questioned publicly Kanoute’s narrative and the college’s reaction to the incident that occurred at Tyler House on July 31.

In a letter to Smith College President Kathleen McCartney that has circulated among staff and faculty and was recently published online, Tracey Putnam Culver — a Smith alumna who runs the facilities department’s warehouse at the college, where she’s worked for 33 years — said some staff members are also united in their criticism of the Smith administration, but in a different way.

On Wednesday, Culver told the Gazette that the college’s policy has long been “see something, say something” — in other words, don’t approach an unknown person, just call campus police. She said the employee who made the call has worked at the college for three decades and knew that protocol well. There is even a poster currently hanging in the facilities break room reminding staff of that policy, Culver added.

“People are annoyed and they’re angry, and they’re frustrated and confused,” Culver told the Gazette. “This staff member did everything according to protocol … and it turned into a debacle which was not helped by how our president and Amy Hunter (Smith’s interim director of inclusion, diversity and equity) handled it.”

‘Thrown under the bus’

Culver said many staff feel betrayed by the administration and by the fact that “the staff member was thrown under the bus” before an investigation was conducted. “I have gotten many emails from all different types of staff,” she added, “thanking me for writing that letter.”

Smith College declined to make McCartney and Hunter available for an interview, citing the ongoing investigation of the incident that the Sanghavi Law Office, based in Brookline, is currently undertaking.

In her letter, Culver also defended the employee who made the call, saying administrators were unduly focused on the idea that the employee said the student was “out of place.”

“This is ludicrous,” Culver wrote in her letter, which also raised questions around whether the caller thought Kanoute was a man. “The accused staff member has worked on campus and in student residences for over 30 years. Oumou Kanoute’s own actions put her ‘out of place,’ not the color of her skin. This was never an incident of racial bias.”

Culver was referring to the fact that, according to her conversations with the employees involved, Tyler House, a women’s dormitory on Green St., was closed to everyone but staff at the time when the call was made at 1:58 p.m. Culver added that lunch ended that day at 1:30 p.m. The Gazette could not obtain a copy of the building’s schedule to verify Culver’s claim that Tyler House was closed at the time.

Continue the fight

On campus Tuesday, when asked about Culver’s letter questioning whether racism was involved in the call to police, Shehrbano Ibrahim, a 21-year-old junior from Pakistan, said the fact that someone would question Kanoute’s narrative is a sign that students need to continue to fight against racism on campus.

“That’s just an example of why we take action against this,” said Ibrahim, who hadn’t read the letter. “The fact that they wrote that letter means (the administration) should be doing something about this on campus.”

Ibrahim said that this isn’t the first time someone has called the campus police on a person of color on campus. The difference, she said, is that Kanoute’s case received news coverage. “It keeps happening, it’s nothing new,” she said.

Kanoute and some of her supporters have called on Smith to name the employee who made the phone call. Kanoute even took to Facebook to post the names and photos of two staffers she believed were behind the call, later deleting the post and apologizing after Smith College said, in its online FAQ section about the incident, “Neither of the individuals named in these posts placed the call.”In the same section, Smith corrected her Aug. 1 post on Facebook saying that Smith routinely outsources its summer security to the Northampton Police Department. Campus police, the college said, are unarmed and respond to all on-campus calls, throughout the year.

Kanoute declined a phone interview and did not respond to emailed questions by publication time on Wednesday for this story. But she spoke to the Gazette about the incident earlier this summer.

“I don’t want to inflict harm on anyone,” she said, adding that she does want restorative justice. “This person knows who they are, and it’s shameful that they haven’t come out themselves and apologized to me ... All I want — my first demand — is an apology.”

‘Adverse consequences’

McCartney has said she has reached out to both parties to facilitate an apology. Smith has declined to release the identities of any employees involved in calling campus police and has said that privacy laws preclude them from making public any personnel-related outcomes of the third-party investigation.

“Under college policy, any campus police records released must have references to involved parties removed,” reads a statement on the college’s website. “This policy recognizes the potentially adverse consequences of releasing identifying information, especially in cases where doing so may discourage the use of critical safety resources.”

Last week, the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union announced that it will represent Kanoute in seeking policy changes at Smith and the restorative justice process she seeks.

Already, the college said that anti-bias trainings, which groups of employees have received in the past, will be expanded to all staff.

McCartney, in an Aug. 30 open letter, shared messages sent to her from members of the Smith community, noting that they reflected a wide range of perspectives. She underscored that speaking to one another is key to moving forward.

“At this point the lives of three dedicated staff members have been seriously disrupted, their jobs have been jeopardized, they have been labeled as racists and have had nasty comments and threats directed at them,” read one message.

“While instances of racial profiling can stem from hate, I also believe such profiling often stems from a lack of education on the matter,” read another message. “I’m sure many Smith students, employees and faculty come from predominantly white communities, and they, perhaps, have been directly or indirectly taught to fear people who appear different from themselves.”

“It’s not really possible to articulate a ‘truth’ about which experiences are and which are not influenced by race,” read yet another. “For the student, race was most certainly central because it speaks to every part of her life experience and how she has seen Black people treated. People of color can feel frustrated by the question — Was race involved? — because to ask the question does not recognize their life experience.”

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


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