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Protests mark start of new semester at Smith College

Smith College in Northampton.
Smith College in Northampton.(Boston Globe)

Students at Smith College began the new school year demanding answers and action from administrators about a racially charged incident on campus over the summer.

The college’s usually festive convocation ceremony Wednesday night – a celebration with costumes and glitter — was marked by protests and a large student walkout. Students carried signs reading “Black Lives Matter” and chanted “When black students are under attack what do we do? Stand up. Fight back.”

Organized by the Black Students’ Alliance and the Smith African & Caribbean Students Association, the protests served as a reminder that students who recently returned to the Northampton campus remain upset by the treatment of a black student in late July.

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In that incident, police received a call from a staff member about Oumou Kanoute, a female student who was working over the summer as a teaching assistant and residential adviser. The employee said Kanoute, who was relaxing in a common area after having lunch, seemed “to be out of place.”

Kanoute wrote about the incident on Facebook, saying the employee had reported her as a “suspicious black male,” and posted video of her conversation with the police officer, sparking an outcry. In the transcript of the phone call released by the college, the employee did not specifically mention race.

The private women’s college placed the employee on leave and hired an outside firm to investigate the incident. And the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts announced on Thursday that it has become involved in the case, representing Kanoute.

The ACLU said it would work to help Kanoute “seek a restorative justice process with both individuals involved in the incident, as well as policy changes from Smith College, including new policies and training to prevent what Oumou experienced from being repeated.”

But after more than a month, students said they are frustrated by the pace of the investigation.

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On Wednesday, college president Kathleen McCartney acknowledged that the incident remains a point of contention on campus.

“I recognize that Smith falls short even as we continue to make progress on inclusion, diversity and equity,” McCartney said in remarks provided by the college. “As you know, my team and I have been working all summer to develop new programming and new initiatives to meet the high aspirations we all have to make Smith a place where everyone feels they belong in every space.”

Smith is providing antibias training for employees and has launched several inclusion efforts involving students and staff.

During McCartney’s remarks, faculty members stood up and shouted “black students matter,” according to those in attendance. McCartney and others on stage joined in.

Bri Barrett, a senior and president of the Student Government Association, said what happened to Kanoute was a “catalyst for needed change.”


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com.