A Smith College employee who called campus police Tuesday to report that a black student relaxing in a common area looked “out of place” has been put on leave, the school confirmed Friday.
In a statement posted to Smith’s website, Amy Hunter, the college’s interim director of inclusion, diversity, and equity, said the employee, whom she didn’t name, had been “placed on leave pending the outcome of the external investigation.”
That probe is being conducted by Sanghavi Law Office, which Hunter said will “conduct a thorough, external investigation. The firm has extensive experience conducting civil rights investigations, including investigative experience at the US Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights.”
Friday’s announcement came after Tuesday’s incident at the private women’s college in Northampton prompted widespread outrage. It was described by Kathleen McCartney, Smith’s president, as “a powerful reminder that building an inclusive, diverse, and sustainable community is urgent and ongoing work.”
On Tuesday, rising sophomore Oumou Kanoute, who is on campus this summer as a teaching assistant and residential adviser, was eating her lunch in a common room when a campus police officer approached her.
A college employee had called police to report someone who seemed out of place in a Smith building being used for a summer program. When campus police arrived, they found Kanoute taking a break from her campus job.
“I am blown away at the fact that I cannot even sit down and eat lunch peacefully,” Kanoute said on her Facebook page. “I did nothing wrong, I wasn’t making any noise or bothering anyone. All I did was be black.”
Kanoute also posted video of her conversation with the police officer and wrote on Facebook that a white college employee had reported her to authorities as “a suspicious black male.”
On Friday, Smith also released a redacted transcript of the phone call the employee made to campus police.
The call was brief. The dispatcher asked just for the caller’s name before sending over an officer. And the employee seemed uncertain about the gender of the person in the room, according to the transcript.
“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. I didn’t approach her or anything but um he seems to be out of place,” the employee said. “[U]mm … 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.”
The dispatcher said an officer would respond, and an officer later told dispatch, “All clear. That was a student relaxing in the living room. They had lunch here I guess and they decided to stay for a while.”
McCartney has said that this fall, all Smith staff members will participate in anti-bias training. University officials and campus police will also try to improve protocols for responding to calls for assistance, she said.
On Friday, Kanoute declined an interview and said she needed time and couldn’t talk about her experience.
On her public Facebook page, she said she wants to have a private conversation with the unnamed employee and Smith’s administration “focused on reconciliation and acknowledgment of this wrongdoing from the employee and the college.”Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at email@example.com. Travis Andersen can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.