Report: No staff wrongdoing in Smith College incident

  • Smith College. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/29/2018 11:41:29 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Smith College has released a third-party investigative report into an apparent incident of racial profiling on campus this summer, which has found no wrongdoing on the part of staff.

The investigation was conducted by the Sanghavi Law Office, of Boston, after a Smith employee called campus police this summer on a black student worker, Oumou Kanoute, who the employee said seemed to be “out of place” while Kanoute was on her lunch break in a residence hall.

The incident received national media attention and sparked protest and anger on campus. Kanoute’s case was one of several high-profile incidents of police being called on black students and staff on college campuses across the country. In response to some of those incidents, including one at the University of Massachusetts Amherst earlier this fall, the American Civil Liberties Union has launched a campaign aimed at creating changes on campuses with their own police and security forces.

Sanghavi Law Office’s investigation into the Smith College incident found that the campus employee who called police “provided a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for calling,” and that investigators “did not find sufficient information that this decision was based on the Reported Party’s race or color.” The report concludes that no staff member involved in the incident violated the college’s non-discrimination policy. A statement on Smith’s website says that the college “does not anticipate pursuing any adverse employment action in connection with the events of July 31.” The employee who placed the call to police was placed on administrative leave shortly after the indicant, and it is unclear whether he is still on leave.

The report did acknowledge that Kanoute was having lunch when approach by the police, and that the incident made her fearful.

The report also says that campus police receive a high volume of reports of “suspicious persons.” The investigation gives the college recommendations for improving its response to those suspicious person reports, pointing to potential shortcomings in the college’s current policies.

Those recommendations include: developing protocols for people reporting “suspicious” activity to focus on the behaviors, rather than the people; improving information the college gives to community members about what to do when they perceive “suspicious” activity, and about summertime access to buildings on campus; preparing staff to respond to unanticipated encounters with people on campus, including those involving real or perceived danger; possibly revising the campus police “suspicious activity policy” drafted in 2009; and considering efforts to better understand the experiences of community members around issues of racial bias.

The ACLU, which is representing Kanoute, said that she was unavailable for an interview Monday. In a statement, ACLU staff attorney Carl Takei criticized Smith College’s current policies related to situations like the one Kanoute found herself in.

“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 said.

“Oumou should never have been reported to the police,” Takei added. “Any reasonable person looking at Oumou on the couch would have seen a black student doing nothing threatening or suspicious.”

In a letter to the campus community, President Kathleen McCartney did allude to the possibility of implicit bias.

“After reading the investigation, I suspect many of you will conclude, as I did, that in investigations like this, as in our daily interactions, it is impossible to rule out the potential role of implicit racial bias,” McCartney wrote. “Let us begin with this recognition as we embrace the work that lies ahead.”

McCartney went on to say that the publication of the investigation is likely to reopen wounds, and that it makes clear to her that person-to-person conversations need to increase on campus and in society in order to prevent “unnecessary escalation involving police.”

Minute details

The investigation relied on interviews with 11 people, including the employee who called police, Kanoute, the responding police officer and police dispatcher, the interim chief of police and another campus employee. Sanghavi Law Office also looked at other “documentation,” such as Kanoute’s social media posts, police call logs, an audio recording of the call to police, news reports on the incident, college and police policies, and campus police reports on bias-based profiling from 2015 and 2016.

Much of the report delves into the minute details of the July 31 incident as told to investigators by the parties involved. Investigators at times found conflicting details in the accounts of those interviewed, but ultimately concluded that neither the caller, a dining employee who interacted with Kanoute, the dispatcher who fielded the call nor the responding police officer violated college policy.

“The investigation did not find that the evidence was sufficient to show that the Reported Party was discriminated against with respect to the Incident,” reads the reports conclusion.

The ACLU, however, focused its criticism on the report’s review of current campus protocols, practices and relevant trainings. The investigators found, among other things, a lack of staff policies or staff training on how to respond to “suspicious” activity or people.

As part of their “Living While Black on Campus” campaign, the ACLU has drafted policies for colleges to adopt in order to address such suspicious person situations. Takei said those model policies address faults that the investigators found in Smith’s current policies.

“Most importantly, the college’s investigators found none of the college’s policies provide protection for Black and brown students who are targets of racially motivated suspicious person calls.” Takei said. “We urge Smith to adopt the policy changes and institutional reforms that the ACLU provided to the college in September, to protect Oumou and other students of color so this doesn’t happen again.”

In her statement, McCartney said the college will be pursuing the report’s recommendations around policies and trainings for employees and campus police.

“These recommendations are closely aligned with suggestions we have received from the student,” McCartney wrote, adding that relevant departments have already begun to implement the procedures. “I will keep you updated on the progress of this work.”

When asked if the college will implement the ACLU’s policies, college spokeswoman Stacey Schmeidel said Smith will review them for ways that those recommendations “might inform us going forward.”

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


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