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Mills community discusses issues concerning racial profiling on campus

In the wake of recent burglaries on campus, some Mills College students have raised the issue of what they see as racial profiling by security officers when searching for and describing crime suspects on campus.

On Dec. 2 about 25 students hosted a meeting to discuss the issue. Second-year graduate student from the MFA program, who goes by the name Jezebel Delilah X, hosted the gathering. It was held in the English department Graduate Lounge.

“I wanted this meeting because people that I love, people that I care for, people that I am so proud of are being profiled because of who they are and how they look,” said X, opening the meeting to testimonies by students of color who said they were affected by the profiling. She asked for constructive dialogue between students and the administration. College officers present included Renee Jadushlever, Vice President for Operations, who was there to represent Public Safety. Jadushlever has been supervising the department for the past six weeks. Guiletta Aquino, Dean of Undergraduate Admission and Joi Lewis, Dean of Student Life, were also present at the meeting.

But X didn’t have officials in mind. “My intention was for this to be a meeting between only students and the faculty,” she said.

Naamen Tilahun, also a second-year graduate student in the MFA program, spoke about an incident during which a Public Safety officer approached him when he returned to campus at 10:45 a.m. for class on Nov. 23. Tilahun, who has been enrolled for over three months, felt discriminated against as other students came on campus without resistance.

“I was just passing the guard house while on the phone with a friend when I heard a voice yell. I couldn’t make out what was being said, but the guard was looking at me so I paused. The security guard approached and asked ‘What are you doing coming onto campus?’ I responded that I was a student at which point he said he would have to see my ID,” he said. “The guard stated that he had recently gotten off the graveyard shift so didn’t recognize me.”

When the guard checked Tilahun’s ID, Tilahun said he asked the officer if he checked everyone who came on campus and received no response as the guard went back to the gate house.

“There are plenty of people who come on campus and walk their dog and jog and wander,” said Tilahun. “They don’t get asked for their ID.”

Although Mills is considered an open campus at the front gate, Jadushlever did explain that dog walkers are registered with the College and pedestrians coming on campus are checked periodically.

Tilahun spoke about the incident with peers in the MFA program, and discovered that he was the fourth person, all of whom were black, to report similar incidents with Public Safety.

Tilahun said he is is planning to file a grievance report about the incident. “Now I tense up when getting on campus,” he said.

Students and administrative officials discuss incidents of racial profiling by the Public Safety Department at meeting held on Dec. 2nd, 2009. (Morgan Ross)
Students and administrative officials discuss incidents of racial profiling by the Public Safety Department at meeting held on Dec. 2nd, 2009. (Morgan Ross)

Shareena Clark is another MFA student who said she was recently stopped at the front gate twice while returning onto campus with her friends.

“I was asked on two different occasions for my ID with a group of other students,” said Clark, stating that during the first incident of being stopped the officer even asked her group of friends to verify if she was a Mills student. “The second time, I was with the same group. The lady asked again and I told her to stop carding me. And I just went away.”

“I just wanted to note that all the students who were stopped are brown-skinned … and masculine looking,” said X at the meeting, suggesting the officers were specifically stopping students of a particular skin color. “The question is why are they asking for that certain kind of image?”

X says she thinks these incidences stem from Public Safety officers reacting to the descriptions of suspects from the recent campus burglaries, as sent by Director of Public Safety Michael Lopez to the entire College community through e-mail.

On Nov. 6, Lopez described in an e-mail a suspect who was a “black female about five feet tall” who entered Mills Hall that afternoon and allegedly stole a wallet. On Nov. 10 and Nov. 12, Lopez requested the community to be vigilant for suspects who “looked like they were not a member of the community,” in response to two more burglaries. In another e-mail sent on Nov. 19, Lopez described a suspect from an attempted burglary at Cowell that day as an “African American male about six feet tall wearing black clothing carrying a black and green backpack.”

Public Safety is familiar with this suspect, however, as he has been on campus several times in the past.

X also expressed her worry that such descriptions not only affected officers’ perception of seeking suspects on campus, but also first-year students experiencing a climate of fear.

Lopez did not respond to The Campanil at press time. Instead, Jadushlever said in a statement, “The College takes the complaints about alleged profiling very seriously and several College officers were on hand at the community meeting to hear the various concerns of the students in attendance. It is a departmental and College priority to assure that staff are educated and trained to deal with sensitivity around race and continuing education will take place on that topic. The College is committed to have a safe and inclusive environment on campus where all community members feel welcomed.”

At the meeting, Jadushlever spoke about the issue being more systemic rather than individual, and said she hopes to address such accusations through Human Resources, and look at how to best send out the emergency notifications by Public Safety in the future.

“I need to review the communication and find ways to better communicate that is more appropriate,” she said, addressing concerns that e-mails did not allow enough follow-up for students to learn about how the emergency situations with suspects ended up playing out.

Those present at the meeting also discussed concerns regarding how Public Safety officers are trained to seek suspicious suspects on campus, which Jadushelver responded to by explaining that officers will undergo specialized training to more appropriately approach the issue.

“I have to say, to ensure everyone, that there has been no directives of this from the administration,” Jadushlever said. “I want to offer my sincerest apologies on behalf of myself, the administration and the College.” She said the campus remained safe.

Nia King, a sophomore and manager of the Solidary Lounge, attended the meeting and said wanted to ensure accountability from the department. “I think the meeting went really well,” King said. “I think it would have been good if Public Safety was here, and not just one individual to speak for the organization.”

X suggested at the meeting to create a follow-up group to work directly with Public Safety in addressing these issues to ensure that all promises made at the meeting are kept. “We will maintain communication relentlessly. We want to make sure that Mills is the place of promise for everyone,” she said.