Smith College plans to bring in a third-party investigator to “conduct a thorough review” after an employee this week called campus police on a black student who was eating her lunch in a common area at the Northampton school, officials say.
In a letter to students, staff, and faculty Thursday, Kathleen McCartney, the school’s president, said she offered her “deepest apology” to the student and promised to make changes to campus police protocol as well as require school employees to undergo mandatory anti-bias training next semester.
“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,” McCartney said in her letter. “It is a powerful reminder that building an inclusive, diverse, and sustainable community is urgent and ongoing work.”
On July 31, a college employee called police to report someone who “seemed out of place” in a Smith building that was being used for a summer program.
When the officer arrived, he discovered that the Smith student, who is black, was merely taking a break from her campus job.
The student, who could not be reached for comment, posted two brief videos to Facebook of her interaction with the officer. She also wrote at length about what happened, saying that a white college employee reported her to the police as a “suspicious black male.”
“I am blown away at the fact that I cannot even sit down and eat lunch peacefully,” she wrote. “I did nothing wrong, I wasn’t making any noise or bothering anyone. All I did was be black.”
On Wednesday, the school issued a statement in response to the incident, and said it “raised concerns in our community about bias and equity.”
The school said it “does not tolerate race- or gender-based discrimination in any form.”
The student — and those outraged about the racial incident — asked that the name of the employee who called police be made public. But the school said it will not share the person’s identity, citing privacy laws and campus policy.
McCartney, the school’s president, said beyond “engaging a third-party investigator,” every staff member at the school must take part in anti-bias training beginning in the fall.
Additionally, the school plans to host workshops for faculty and staff that will cover topics like “identity, inclusion, bias-response, and bias-prevention,” the letter said.
The school had already been working on expanding existing anti-bias training and adding new workshops, but as of Thursday the training portion became mandatory.
She said the school’s Office of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity will also be working with campus police to look at ways to improve on how the department assesses situations and responds to calls.
“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,” McCartney wrote. “But we need everyone’s input, and we pledge to listen to you.”
Below is the full letter from Smith College president Kathleen McCartney to the school community:
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