A third-party investigator will conduct a “thorough review” of an incident at Smith College in which an employee called the police to report a person who “seemed to be out of place” after seeing a black student eating lunch in a building on campus, the school’s president announced late Thursday.
In a statement addressed to Smith’s students, staff, and faculty, Kathleen McCartney apologized to the student, who wrote on Facebook about how she was approached by a school officer on Tuesday afternoon during her lunch break from her summer job.
“I was very nervous, and had a complete meltdown after this incident,” Oumou Kanoute, who identified herself as the student involved, wrote. “It’s just wrong and uncalled for. No student of color should have to explain why they belong at prestigious white institutions. I worked my hardest to get into Smith, and I deserve to feel safe on my campus.”
The school has said there was “nothing suspicious about the student’s presence.”
In the letter, McCartney sought to assure the rising sophomore that she “belongs in all Smith spaces.”
“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,” she wrote. “But when we fall short in our responsibility to support our students, it is a particularly hard moment for all of us.”
In addition to bringing in an outside investigator, McCartney said that, starting this fall, every Smith staff member will be required to participate in anti-bias training, and a series of workshops will be held for school employees on “… topics of identity, inclusion, bias-response and bias-prevention.” The school’s Office of Inclusion Diversity and Equity will also work with campus police to “strengthen the protocols by which they triage, assess and respond to calls for assistance.”
According to the college, students of color comprise 32.4 percent of the undergraduate student body.
“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,” the college president wrote. “It is a powerful reminder that building an inclusive, diverse and sustainable community is urgent and ongoing work.”
On Thursday, Kanoute wrote on Facebook that while she appreciates the college’s efforts, the response has been “incomplete.” The student said she would be unable to move forward from the incident without having the school give her the name of the employee who contacted police and an apology during a meeting with that employee and the college.
“This process must precede any type of decision for or against punishment for this outrageous and racist act,” she wrote. “This process must also be accompanied by beginning a mandatory campus-wide conversation and new school policy concerning racism, gender, and policing that centers the voices of students and faculty of color when we return from summer vacation in Fall 2018.
The college has said it will not release the name of the employee who called the police.
Read the full letter from Kathleen McCartney below:
Dear Students, Staff and Faculty,
As you know, on July 31 a student of color on the Smith campus was approached by Campus Police, because a Smith staff person reported seeing someone who appeared to be “out of place.” I begin by offering the student involved my deepest apology that this incident occurred and to assure her that she belongs in all Smith spaces. 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. It is a powerful reminder that building an inclusive, diverse and sustainable community is urgent and ongoing work.
I have been hearing from members of our community, and I want you to know that I am listening. One young alumna speaks for so many when she writes, “The incident that occurred on campus this week was disappointing and saddening. It’s a stark reminder that we have work to do still to make Smith a place where students of color are seen as students and not intruders; that student workers are respected and acknowledged as belonging and mattering.”
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. But when we fall short in our responsibility to support our students, it is a particularly hard moment for all of us. Clearly, we have important work to do going forward as a community. I write now to inform you of some next steps in our work to hold Smith to the highest standards with respect to inclusion, diversity and equity for all members of our community.
As members of an academic community, we know that education lies at the heart of prevention as well as intervention. Beginning this fall, every Smith staff member will be required to participate in mandatory anti-bias training. In addition, the Office of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity (OIDE), in partnership with Human Resources and the School for Social Work, will hold a series of workshops for faculty and staff focused specifically on topics of identity, inclusion, bias-response and bias-prevention. Further, OIDE will work with Campus Police to strengthen the protocols by which they triage, assess and respond to calls for assistance. And I will continue to offer innovation grants to support student, faculty and staff ideas around inclusion.
Importantly, the college is engaging a third-party investigator to conduct a thorough review of this incident. Although privacy laws preclude Smith from making public personnel-related outcomes of any investigation, I commit to sharing with you any recommendations on policies, procedures or further community training that result.
Members of the Smith campus community share a responsibility to ensure that each of us is safe and each of us is treated with respect. As president, I have made this work a priority, and I will continue to do so in collaboration with vice presidents and senior staff, the Inclusion Council, Faculty Council, Staff Council and the Student Government Association. But we need everyone’s input, and we pledge to listen to you. To that end, I encourage members of our community to send me their ideas via this form. I look forward to partnering with you all in this work as we redress past wrongs and redouble our prevention efforts so that incidents like this never happen again. This work will take reflection and sustained commitment. I am confident this community will rise to the challenge; there is no work that is more important.
President, Smith College