An employee at Smith College called campus police on a Black student who was simply eating her lunch and reading in a common room on Tuesday. The employee believed the student looked “out of place.”
Oumou Kanoute, a rising sophomore at the school in Northampton, Massachusetts, posted two video snapshots of the encounter on Facebook.
“We were wondering why you were here,” the campus police officer can be heard saying in the video.
“Oh, I was eating lunch. I’m working the summer program, so I was just relaxing on the couch,” Kanoute responded, explaining that she’s a teaching assistant this summer.
“I am blown away at the fact that I cannot even sit down and eat lunch peacefully,” she wrote on Facebook after the incident. “I did nothing wrong. I wasn’t making any noise or bothering anyone. All I did was be black.”
“No students of color should have to explain why they belong at prestigious white institutions,” she continued. “I worked my hardest to get into Smith, and I deserve to feel safe on my campus.”
Kanoute also wrote that the employee who made the call reported her as a “suspicious black male” to the police. The school has not made the employee’s name public, saying doing so would violate the school’s policy.
The campus police officer who responded to the call realized that it was unfounded, and Kanoute noted that he apologized to her.
Kanoute told CBS News that she is the first in her family to go to college. She is spending the summer teaching chemistry to high school students for Smith’s STEM program.
In a statement on Thursday, Smith College President Kathleen McCartney apologized to the student and said a third-party investigator is reviewing the incident.
“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,” the statement read. “But when we fall short in our responsibility to support our students, it is a particularly hard moment for all of us.”
McCartney said that starting in the fall, all staff members will participate in mandatory anti-bias training. The school will additionally “host a series of workshops for faculty and staff focused specifically on topics of identity, inclusion, bias-response and bias-prevention.”
The school’s Office of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity will also work with Campus Police to “strengthen the protocols by which they triage, assess and respond to calls for assistance,” McCarty added, though she did not clarify the timeline or what exactly that partnership would look like.
Kanoute said that she appreciates the school’s efforts, but said they don’t go far enough. “We must be intentional about addressing this racist incident and systemic racism on campus,” she wrote on Facebook. “Your response has been helpful, but it is incomplete.” She asked for the name of the employee who made the call and a private meeting with the employee and members of the administration to discuss what happened.
Smith College is a private liberal arts college that is part of the “Seven Sisters,” a group of historically women’s colleges in the Northeast. The school has a history of progressive activism, but students have criticized the administration’s inclusion of people of color and transgender and non-binary students. In August 2016, an unnamed individual leaked letters from faculty members that expressed concern about the administration’s diversity efforts and complained that the school admitted students who “do not have a reasonable chance of success in our program.”
Smith College alums have expressed their outrage and disappointment about Tuesday’s incident online, with many calling for allies and unity to help tackle the issue of racism on campus.
Similar incidents have made headlines elsewhere this year, including at Yale University, where a white woman called the police on a Black graduate student who was napping in her dormitory’s common room. The student was forced to explain to four police officers that she was simply napping.