Smith College Says No Evidence Of Racial Bias In Controversial Incident

Oct 30, 2018

Smith College released a report on Monday finding no evidence that racial bias was involved in a controversial incident last summer.

In July, a Smith College employee called campus police after seeing a person of color -- a Smith student -- in a residence hall.

The student, it turns out, was on her lunch break from a summer job at the school and took a video of her interaction with a campus police officer, which went viral. 

An outside law firm concluded the caller had a “legitimate non-discriminatory reason” for contacting police -- the dorm was not occupied at the time and employees were encouraged to report anything out of the ordinary to police.

But Smith student Catherine Sensenig believes racism was involved.

"I’m a white student and I’m pretty positive that if I’d been sitting in a living room, nobody would have called campus police on me," she said.

Freshman Dorothy Whalen is a student of color who says she’d like to believe racism wasn’t involved.

"I hope -- you hope -- that it wasn’t but everybody comes with their own biases. It’s really impossible to know," she said.

And Smith President Kathleen McCartney seems to agree.

In an email to campus, McCartney said, “it is impossible to rule out the potential role of implicit racial bias”:

With regard to the employee’s call to Campus Police, the investigators found gaps and conflicting information in individuals’ recollections of events. There were questions and concerns raised, but also plausible non-discriminatory explanations. Weighing these accounts in the context of their overall fact-finding, the investigators ultimately concluded that “the Caller provided a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for calling the Campus Police on the day of the Incident.” (p. 23) Further, “the Investigative Team did not find sufficient information that this decision was based on the Reported Party’s race or color, or violated the Policy.” (p. 23)

At the same time, the report validates and affirms the student’s lived experience, notably the fear she felt when approached by a Campus Police officer. I recognize that this event has been painful for the student, and that the publication of this report will bring this pain to the forefront again. It is clear to me that we need to foster the capacity for person-to-person conversations—on our campus and in our wider communities—thereby preventing unnecessary escalation involving the police.

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. Let us begin with this recognition as we embrace the work that lies ahead.

Smith College invited students to a campus meeting to talk about the report, but would not allow reporters inside.

The ACLU is representing the woman at the center of the controversy, Oumou Kanoute. 

It released a statement Monday:

Oumou should never have been reported to the police. Any reasonable person looking at Oumou on the couch would have seen a Black student doing nothing threatening or suspicious. 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.