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Smith College launches outside probe after employee calls police on black student at lunch

  • —Kevin Gutting

  • Smith College Dining Services Administrative Assistant Vanessa Williams speaks in the campus center about an incident at the college on Tuesday in which an employee called police to investigate the presence of a black student sitting in a common area. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Smith College School for Social Work student Allegra Kartha. Staff Photo/Kevin Gutting

  • Smith College junior Emelyn Chiang speaks in the campus center about the incident at the college. Staff Photo/Kevin Gutting

  • Chapin House on the campus of Smith College in Northampton. Staff Photo/Kevin Gutting



Staff Writer
Friday, August 03, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — Smith College is hiring an outside investigator to review an incident Tuesday in which a college employee called police because a black student sitting in a common area “seemed to be out of place,” college President Kathleen McCartney said Thursday.

“This painful incident reminds us of the ongoing legacy of racism and bias in which people of color are targeted while simply going about the business of their daily lives,” McCartney wrote in letter to students, staff and faculty. “It is a powerful reminder that building an inclusive, diverse and sustainable community is urgent and ongoing work.”

Oumou Kanoute, a teaching assistant and residential adviser for Smith, was on her lunch break in a Smith dining area Tuesday when an unarmed campus police officer arrived and asked what she was doing.

“It’s outrageous that some people question my being at Smith College, and my existence overall as a women of color,” Kanoute wrote Tuesday in a Facebook post, which includes video of her exchange with the officer. “I did nothing wrong, I wasn’t making any noise or bothering anyone. All I did was be black.”

Kanoute, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, said in her post that the incident made her nervous, and while the responding officer apologized, she had a “meltdown” after the incident. She called for the Smith administration to identify the employee who called police so the person can “confront and acknowledge the harm done to me as (a) student.”

“This person didn’t try to bring their concerns forward to me, but instead decided to call the police,” Kanoute wrote on Facebook. “No student of color should have to explain why they belong at prestigious white institutions,” Kanoute wrote. “I worked my hardest to get into Smith, and I deserve to feel safe on my campus.”

According to McCartney, any non-personnel related findings by the third-party investigator reviewing the incident will be shared with the public regarding policy and procedural changes, but the identity of the caller will not be released. No police report on the incident was filed, as the responding officer determined the call was unfounded.

“This incident has raised concerns in our community about bias and equity,” Amy Hunter, Smith’s institutional equity officer and Title IV coordinator, wrote in an earlier email to students, staff and faculty. “Smith College does not tolerate race- or gender-based discrimination in any form. Such behavior can contribute to a climate of fear, hostility and exclusion that has no place in our community.”

In her letter to the campus community, McCartney wrote that beginning next fall, every Smith staff member will be required to participate in mandatory anti-bias training. In addition, a series of workshops on identity and inclusion will be offered to all staff, and the Office of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity will work with campus police to improve protocols for how they respond to future incidents. Campus police already receive training on bias prevention, diversity, trauma-informed victim response, violence prevention and de-escalation, according to the college.

“This work will take reflection and sustained commitment,” McCartney wrote. “I am confident this community will rise to the challenge; there is no work that is more important.”

Smith College students, faculty and staff who spoke with the Gazette Thursday said racist incidents like this are alarming, but not surprising. Some mentioned faculty members of color leaving the School for Social Work in recent history, and other referenced racial tensions in residential halls.

“I think the (college) should take responsibility for whoever made that call and reprimand that person,” said Allegra Kartha, a 21-year-old social work student. “I’m glad that officer that did respond reacted the way they did because it could have been a lot worse.”

Vanessa Williams, an administrative assistant with the college’s dining services, was disappointed to hear the police were called on a fellow woman of color, and said the issue hits close to home.

“In my own little world, I’m like, this can’t happen at Smith,” she said. “We’re so committed to diversity and inclusion. Then to hear something like this happening, it just pissed me off.”

Williams said she would like to see more training on diversity and inclusion for all employees of the college, not just managers and higher-ups.

“Smith College has to show that we are growing with them,” Williams said of the students. “And establish policies that address these issues.”

Live up to commitments

Rose Sullivan, an adjunct professor teaching at Smith’s School for Social Work this summer, said the administration needs to live up to its stated commitment to diversity and inclusion.

“I think some of these things could be addressed numbers-wise if there was more equity,” Sullivan said. “At Smith you just don’t have the numbers.”

Sullivan, a Smith alumna, teaches full-time during the school year at Westfield State University where she said there is more diversity in the student population, but racist incidents like vandalism on dorm room doors are still a problem.

“Educational institutions are supposed to be places of dialogue, but as we can see that doesn’t always happen,” Sullivan said.

She wondered if the student and the caller could seek “restorative justice,” a process through which the offender apologizes to the victim and works with the community to repair the damage done by the incident.

“I wouldn’t want to sit down with a (staff) member who called the cops on me,” Kartha said.

Emelyn Chiang, a rising junior at Smith and a teammate of Kanoute’s on the cross-country team, said racial issues on campus are not new to students.

“We definitely have problems on campus,” Chiang said. “In the two years I’ve been here there have been some race problems.”

She cited racial tensions last year at Jordan House, a residential building comprising mostly non-minority students, that “led a lot of people of color to move out of the house.”

Bringing back the Social Justice and Equity program, in which student representatives help educate their peers on issues of diversity, could help the campus culture, too, Chiang said. After Dwight Hamilton, Smith College’s vice president for inclusion, diversity and equity, left the college for a position at Northwestern University last year, the program floundered.

“Basically, last year it was dead in the water,” Chiang said.

Hunter, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, wrote in her email that anyone experiencing bias of any form can report it to the EthicsPoint confidential reporting system at https://www.smith.edu/about-smith/reporting.

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@gazettenet.com.