Smith worker on leave as bias investigator hired

  • Smith College junior Emelyn Chiang speaks in the campus center Thursday, August 2, 2018, 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.

  • Smith College School for Social Work student Allegra Kartha speaks on campus Thursday, August 2, 2018, 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 Writer
Published: 8/3/2018 10:57:44 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The Smith College employee who called police on a student of color on her lunch break in a common area has been placed on paid leave pending an outside investigation into the incident.

“The college has retained the Sanghavi Law Office to conduct a thorough, external investigation,” interim director of inclusion, diversity and equity Amy Hunter wrote in an email to Smith students and faculty. “The firm has extensive experience conducting civil rights investigations, including investigative experience at the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights.”

Smith undergraduate Oumou Kanoute, who works as a teaching assistant and residential adviser during the summer, was on her lunch break in a Smith common area on Tuesday afternoon when the campus police officer arrived and asked what she was doing.

Included in Hunter’s email was a redacted transcript of the call to police. The anonymous caller said she “seemed to be out of place.”

“I was just walking through here in the front foyer of [redacted] and we have a person sitting there laying down in the living room area over here,” the caller said. “I didn’t approach her or anything but um he seems to be out of place … umm … I don’t see anybody in the building at this point and uh I don’t know what he’s doing in there just laying on the couch.”

Finding nothing wrong with the situation, the unarmed campus police officer reported back that there was no threat. No police report on the incident was filed, as the responding officer determined the call was unfounded.

“All clear. That was a student relaxing in the living room,” read the transcript. “They had lunch here, I guess, and they decided to stay for a while.”

Kanoute wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday that she found the incident distressing and humiliating.

“It’s outrageous that some people question my being at Smith College, and my existence overall as a women of color,” she wrote in the 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.”

Smith College president Kathleen McCartney apologized for the incident in a letter on Thursday to students, staff and faculty.

“Although Smith has been and continues to be committed to promoting a just and inclusive environment for all members of our community, we continue to fall short even as we continue to make progress,” McCartney wrote. “But when we fall short in our responsibility to support our students, it is a particularly hard moment for all of us.”

In her letter, McCartney said that beginning next fall, every Smith staff member will be required to participate in mandatory anti-bias training. Additionally, a series of workshops on identity and inclusion will be offered to all staff, and the diversity office will work with campus police to improve protocols for how they respond to future incidents.

Kanoute has 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.” However, the school declined to release the employee’s name citing personnel confidentiality.

“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.”

Smith college students and staff interviewed by the Gazette referenced a pattern of faculty members of color leaving the institution, and racial tensions in a specific residential hall — Jordan House — that prompted multiple students of color to leave the residence.

“This incident has raised concerns in our community about bias and equity,” Hunter wrote in an earlier email to students, staff and faculty on Wednesday. “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 2015, Smith College students held a sit-in at the Student Center to address issues of racism on campus, to which the college responded by hosting a “town hall” to listen to their concerns. From the meeting, which barred any media who disagreed with the movement’s mission from reporting on the event, came the beginnings of a dialogue about the challenges of being a student of color, or a low-income student, at Smith College.

Sarah Robertson can be reached at
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