The American Civil Liberties Union's national office has sent a letter to Colorado State University encouraging the school to amend its campus policing policies and more after two Native Americans were racially profiled by CSU police during a campus tour earlier this year.
In response, the university is emphasizing its dedication to diversity and has shared with Westword a lengthy email thread with ACLU staff attorney Sarah Hinger, the letter's author, as a way of demonstrating how responsive it's been in the face of criticism over the actions of its officers, which were captured on a body-worn camera.
In the beginning, the Native American tour-takers didn't publicly identify themselves — which is why their faces are blurred in the video released by the CSU Police Department. But brothers Kanewakeron Thomas Gray and Skanahwati Lloyd Gray have now stepped forward under their own names.
So, too, has their mother, Lorraine Kahneratokwas Gray, who shared the following statement with the ACLU: "My boys were publicly humiliated and told that their looks alone make them suspicious characters. As a mother, I was horrified to hear they were pulled away from a CSU tour because of someone’s misplaced and racially motivated fears. We are all disappointed, not only with CSU’s meager response, but also with their false promises to right this wrong. I hope they fix these policies, so other parents do not have to wonder if their children will be safe and welcomed on campus."
The matter in question took place on April 30, when the mother of another potential CSU attendee dialed 911 because the brothers' appearance disturbed her.
She told the operator she was worried about "two young men that joined our tour who weren't part of the tour" and felt they "really stand out" in part because they didn't offer their names or volunteer information about potential majors and wore clothes with "weird symbolism" — presumably a reference to T-shirts that touted assorted metal bands.
Afterward, a campus police officer dispatched to investigate had the Grays empty their pockets, patted them down and quizzed them for a couple of minutes before being shown an email confirming that they had indeed been invited to look over the school.
But by the time they were released, the rest of the group had already moved on. The Grays, who'd traveled to CSU from their home in New Mexico and were cooperative throughout the exchange, wound up driving seven hours back home rather than completing the tour.
Here's body-camera footage of the students' interaction with CSU police. Note that there's no audio for the first thirty seconds or so, prior to the beginning of the conversation.
According to the ACLU's Hinger, the Gray family directly contacted the New York-based organization, "and that's how we became involved. We are concerned about racial profiling wherever it happens, but we think this story was particularly heartbreaking in the impact that it had on this family. We have a commitment to protecting the rights of Native Americans, but more broadly, we've seen these types of incidents continue to happen not just on city streets, but on our college campuses over and over again."
As an example, she cites the ACLU's representation of a student at Massachusetts's Smith College who became the subject of a police report for eating lunch while black.
Hinger adds: "Law enforcement officers who are there to protect the campus community should make visitors and students feel safe. So it's particularly harmful when we see them using their power to further racial bias."
Hence the aforementioned letter, which is addressed to CSU president Tony Frank. The text acknowledges that Frank, who has announced that he will resign as the university's president in June 2019 by stay with the school as chancellor, expressed regret over the incident in a May 4 letter to the campus community and also concedes that administration representatives have "indicated efforts to amend [CSU's] practices surrounding admissions tours."
The following three examples of impending changes in regard to tours were shared with Westword by CSU spokesman Mike Hooker:
List of names for tour guides and buttons for tour participants — tour guides are provided with a mobile phone and a list of the names of the tour participants. Starting in October, at check-in each person registered for a campus tour will receive a button to wear as a visual way to help identify people who are registered for the tour.
Enhanced tour guide training to make the group welcome more robust at the beginning of the tour, while still allowing for differences in communication ability and culture. In the tour introduction, guests are asked to please "check out" if they leave the tour to help the tour guide be aware of changes in the group.
CSU Police officers have been instructed to communicate with the tour guide if there is a need to contact an individual who is part of a tour, and if an individual who is part of a tour is contacted by CSUPD, the officers will make sure that the person is reunited with the tour.
Still, the letter argues that "these small steps do not obviate the need for more comprehensive measures." Among other things, the ACLU urges "the CSU Police Department to implement additional trainings to adopt specific policies addressing dispatcher and officer responses to bias-based reports."
The CSU reply to the letter provided by spokesperson Mike Hooker addresses such demands generally rather than specifically in the context of pledges to do better. It reads:
CSU shares a strong commitment to creating a community in which people of all races, gender identities, orientations, cultures, religions, heritages, and appearances feel that they belong. Our sincere, shared concern about the experience of Kanewakeron Thomas and Skanahwati Lloyd have only deepened this commitment. CSU has been communicating with the ACLU over the summer about our efforts to implement well-researched recommendations that build on the longstanding work of our students, faculty, and staff in the Native American Cultural Center, Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Division of Student Affairs, Academic Affairs, Division of Enrollment and Access, and CSUPD. Some of these efforts have been in the works for some time and are fully in place, while others are still in progress. CSU has repeatedly expressed its standing invitation to the Gray family to visit our campus to discuss the progress that has been made and the ongoing work underway and we have repeatedly offered to reimburse the Grays for the cost of their trip to campus. We deeply respect their desire to ensure a more welcoming and supportive climate for Native people at Colorado State University, and our university will be better because of both their concern and that of our very engaged students, faculty, staff, and alumni.
By the way, the ACLU letter stresses that the Grays won't even think about visiting the CSU campus before requested reforms are instituted. "My clients had in mind that CSU was their dream school," Hinger points out. "So this type of experience really undermined any positive things that might have been happening on the campus."
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