Smith College will hire an investigator to review an incident in which campus police approached a black student who was suspected of being “out of place” while eating lunch on campus, sparking public outrage and frustration among the students and alumni.
In an e-mail to the Smith community, Kathleen McCartney, president of the private Northampton women’s college, apologized to the student and outlined a series of steps aimed at addressing concerns about racism and inclusion.
“This painful incident reminds us of the ongoing legacy of racism and bias in which people of color are targeted while going about the business of their daily lives,” McCartney wrote. “When we fall short of our responsibility to support our students, it is a particularly hard moment for all of us.”
Earlier this week, a rising sophomore at Smith 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 the student taking a break from her campus job.
“I am blown away at the fact that I cannot even sit down and eat lunch peacefully,” a woman who identified herself as the student in question wrote in two posts on her Facebook page. “I did nothing wrong, I wasn’t making any noise or bothering anyone. All I did was be black.”
The student 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.”
The student did not respond to a request for comment.
By Thursday evening, less than 48 hours after the video had been posted, it had been viewed 2,000 times and hundreds of people had commented on and shared her story.
Many expressed disappointment, frustration, and anger, and McCartney acknowledged she had heard from many in the Smith community.
Smith, with about 2,500 undergraduates, ranks among the top liberal arts colleges in the country.
Black students account for 6.6 percent of Smith’s student body, slightly more than they do at nearby Mount Holyoke College, where they make up 5.3 percent of the undergraduate population.
But being a black woman at Smith can be a challenge, said Gelonnie Smith, the former co-president of the college’s Black Students’ Alliance.
That a college employee called police on a black student having lunch “shouldn’t have happened in the first place,” Smith said. “She was racially profiled at the number one women’s college in this country, Smith College. We are not safe anywhere.”
The college has dealt with several incidents of racial tension in recent years.
A survey released last year noted that many students complained about “incidences of injustice” associated with ethnic identity and race, according to the school’s newspaper, The Sophian.
The survey also found that students of color were among those who felt less comfortable on campus, the newspaper reported.
In August 2016, two leaked letters in which faculty members criticized the school’s social work program for its efforts to increase diversity sparked a rally, a sit-in, and a march.
A department chair at the time, Dennis Miehls, wrote that the school had admitted students who “do not have a reasonable chance of success in our program.” Another letter, signed by an anonymous group of adjunct professors, made a similar argument.
The letters angered students who felt that Smith faculty were dismissing their concerns about racism and questioned the academic qualifications of minority students.
McCartney, the college president, said that this fall all Smith staff will be required to participate in mandatory antibias training. The college’s Office of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity, human resources department, and School for Social Work will also conduct a series of workshops for faculty and staff focused on identity, inclusion and bias.
Smith will also work with the campus police to improve protocols for assessing and responding to calls for assistance, McCartney said.
“Clearly, we have important work to do going forward as a community,” McCartney said.
In her Facebook post, the student at the center of this week’s incident demanded that the administration share the name of the employee who called the police, “so they can confront and acknowledge the harm done to me.”
On Thursday, McCartney said privacy laws would prevent the college from making public personnel matters and the outcome of the third-party investigation. But she said she would share any policy recommendations and further community training with the Smith community.