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Smith College adopts new policies after authorities were called on a black student

The Smith College campus in Northampton.
The Smith College campus in Northampton. (Boston Globe photo)

Smith College has adopted new campus policing guidelines aimed at reducing clashes between school officials and minority students after an employee called authorities on a black sophomore who was relaxing in a common area last summer.

The revised policies require the dispatcher to gather more information about the caller and the allegedly suspicious person to determine that a police response is warranted and to reduce racial profiling. Employees are also encouraged to first talk to a person who may seem out of place but does not seem threatening.

“This is a crucial step forward,” said Carl Takei, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, who has been representing the black student in this case and negotiating policy changes with Smith. Takei said the changes should help ensure that all students feel that they belong on the campus. “Recruiting a diverse student body isn’t enough. Schools have a responsibility to ensuring that the students that they welcome to campus aren’t then targeted by their own campus police departments.”

Last summer, a Smith custodial worker reported to campus police that Oumou Kanoute, a student who was working as a teaching assistant, was “out of place” in a residence hall. Kanoute was relaxing in the building after having lunch. Kanoute, who believed she was targeted because she was black, posted video of the police encounter on Facebook, drawing nationwide attention to potential bias on college campuses.

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The incident sparked outrage among some students and alumni, while others, including some employees, defended the custodial worker.

Students at Smith staged a mass walkout during convocation in September and demanded the school address the potential racial bias.

The college hired an outside investigator to review the incident. The investigation found that the college employee who called police had legitimate reasons for flagging the situation, including that Kanoute was sitting in an un-airconditioned room of a building that was closed. But Kathleen McCartney, president of Smith, acknowledged that the school should do more to prevent similar incidents.

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In announcing the new policies, Smith officials said Wednesday that the college is trying to reduce the “likelihood of bias-related incidents.”

“This guidance emphasizes respectful dialogue — rather than escalation to police — when observing behaviors that do not rise to the level of a safety threat,” the college said in a statement.

The new guidelines will affect both Smith and Mount Holyoke College because they share police departments. All police employees will receive mandatory training on the policies, Smith officials said.

Among the changes that Smith will adopt: Dispatchers will have to obtain full descriptions of individuals involved in the suspicious person call. When police arrive to a nonviolent scene, they should ask the people being reported whether they need assistance, the new rules state.

“This is a non-confrontational way to begin a conversation and might put them at ease,” according to the rules.

If the officer believes the incident might involve bias-profiling, that should be reported to superiors, under the new rules.

And the guidelines remind officers that “the vast majority of our suspicious person calls turn out to be community members or guests of our community engaging in appropriate activity.”

The rules have been adopted after several months of discussions among the ACLU, Smith, the college’s black students, and employee and alumni groups.

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Takei said Smith still has work to do to ensure that the campus is inclusive, but these changes are a positive development.

While Kanoute’s case came to represent the threats faced by black students living their daily lives on college campuses, it is not the only incident, Takei said.

Last September, an anonymous tipster called campus police on a black University of Massachusetts Amherst employee going about his daily routine, according to the university. Last spring, police questioned a black Yale University graduate student after a white student found her sleeping in a common room of their dorm.

Takei said he hoped other colleges would adopt similar guidelines to what Smith has introduced. “There’s a real national problem that needs to be addressed,” he said.

Kanoute was not immediately available for comment.

McCartney in a statement to the Smith community Wednesday said the college would continue to work on issues of inclusions. “A painful event led us to reassess and recommit to making Smith a place where each of us feels included and valued,” McCartney said.


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