Friday, August 10, 2018

At Smith College, the racist incident that wasn't

by Jeff Jacoby

Oumou Kanoute is a black student at Smith College with a summer job on campus. This is what happened after she ate lunch in a mostly empty dining hall one day last week:

A college employee saw her "laying on the couch" alone, mistook her for an unfamiliar male who "seem[ed] to be out of place," and phoned the campus police. An unarmed officer was sent to check things out. He spoke politely to Kanoute, saw that nothing was amiss, and left her in peace.

Here's what didn't happen:

Kanoute wasn't threatened, attacked, or restrained. No weapon was brandished. No voices were raised. No racial slur was uttered — in fact, according to the transcript of the police call, there was no racial reference of any kind. No one picked a fight with Kanoute, accused her of wrongdoing, or denied her right to be where she was. A minor misunderstanding by a cautious employee was quickly resolved, and never escalated into anything dangerous.

That might have been the end of it — except that Kanoute, by her own description, "had a complete meltdown after this incident." She took to Facebook to denounce the unknown "racist punk who called the police on me." In a follow-up post the next day, she urged followers "to put pressure on the [Smith College] administration" to name the employee who called the campus police. By Day 3, she was demanding that Smith address "this racist incident," and raising the issue of "punishment for this outrageous and racist act."

Kanoute's story has become the latest racial uproar, a caldron of angry outrage and mistrust, complete with intense media coverage and an elaborate apology from Smith's president. Meanwhile, the worker who called the police has been suspended pending an "external investigation."

It's not hard to empathize with Kanoute's bitterness at having the police summoned by someone who thought she looked out of place. "I did nothing wrong," she wrote. "I wasn't making any noise or bothering anyone. All I did was be black." Her indignation is especially understandable given the wave of recent stories about whites calling the police to report black people who were doing nothing wrong.

But Kanoute's emotional response doesn't justify the over-the-top media attention, or the rush to treat this incident as if it exemplifies naked American racism.

On the record so far, there is no evidence that Kanoute's color was what precipitated the employee's call. She herself claims that she was mistaken for a "suspicious black male," and the transcript of the police call has the employee referring to Kanoute as a man: "He seems to be out of place. . . . I don't see anybody in the building at this point and, uh, I don't know what he's doing in there, just laying on the couch."  At Smith, where all undergraduates are women, the sight of what appeared to be an unfamiliar young man sprawled on a couch in a room where men normally aren't present might well make a staff member uneasy.

It's easy to castigate the concerned employee for not approaching Kanoute before calling the police. A few seconds of conversation is all Kanoute would have needed to reassure the staff member that she was not a male interloper. But that's wisdom after the fact. In the moment, wasn't it at least as reasonable for the Smith employee to avoid direct confrontation with a person who seemed out of place?

"Get involved by becoming more security conscious," Smith College says in its guide to campus safety, "and by reporting all incidents of suspicious or criminal activity, no matter how insignificant, to Campus Police immediately."

It explains that "suspicious behavior" isn't always articulable:

"Sometimes, callers are unable to identify what is suspicious about a person, and often the person about whom a concern is filed is . . . here for legitimate purposes." But even if there are "innocent explanations," it says, "your campus police department would rather investigate these situations sooner rather than be called when it is too late."

So the employee apparently did just what an uneasy employee in such a situation is supposed to do: Err on the side of safety, and call security.

Americans are exhorted repeatedly: If you see something, say something. More often than not, "something" turns out to be nothing — just a kid having her lunch, for example. But there have been times as well when failing to say something has led to tragedy. It may be obvious in hindsight that a call to the police was unnecessary. But life isn't lived in hindsight, and even at Smith College — as progressive and politically correct a campus as you can find in America — the official policy is: better safe than sorry. Smith asks people to call the police on a hunch, "no matter how insignificant." It doesn't ask them to first calculate the potential political and media fallout, or worry that their call will later be deemed racist.

Misunderstandings happen. One aspect of maturity is learning to distinguish malice from error. What happened to Kanoute last week was unfair, but it was a momentary unpleasantness, not a hateful assault on her dignity as a black woman. If Kanoute can't tell the difference — well, she's still just a teenager. What's everyone else's excuse?


UK: Replacing blackboards with interactive whiteboards was a waste of money, Education Secretary says

Yet another educational innovation that was not pre-tested

Replacing blackboards with interactive whiteboards was a waste of money which did not help pupils’ learning, the Education Secretary has said.

Damian Hinds is today urging headteachers to embrace modern technology as a classroom aide. But he acknowledged that ministers’ attempts to harness digital innovation have in the past been ill-conceived.

Writing in today’s Daily Telegraph, he says: “I recognise that in the past, Governments have been guilty of imposing unwanted technology on schools. “Over a decade ago expensive interactive whiteboards were rolled out to schools, without the support of teachers, and we saw no subsequent rise in pupils’ attainment directly linked to that technology.”

In 2004, [under the Labour Party] the then Education Secretary Charles Clarke launched a modernisation drive which included axing blackboards and chalk, or whiteboards and felt-tip pens, in favour of interactive whiteboards.

As part of a £15 billion drive to rebuild or refurbish every secondary school in Britain, it was announced that all primary schools would receive the new boards and they would be automatically installed in every classroom when new schools are built.

At the time, the National Union of Teachers hailed the demise of blackboards, with a spokesman saying: "Interactive whiteboards are extremely beneficial. Getting rid of blackboards would also put a stop to that awful screeching noise made by chalk." 

Two years later, a Cambridge University study into interactive whiteboards found that they had “been introduced in British classrooms at a rate unprecedented anywhere else in the world”.

Researchers said that by 2004, almost two thirds (63 per cent) of primary schools in England and Wales had at least one interactive whiteboard, adding that “it seems likely that every primary schoolchild in England and Wales has some experience of them”.

However, the research paper concluded that while interactive whiteboards enable innovative teaching styles, their use “cannot be claimed to ‘transform teaching’ in terms of the classroom dialogue and underlying pedagogy".

Mr Hinds writes today that schools must decide which products suit them best, as he warned teachers not to get duped by novelty items which offer little value to learning.

“With around a thousand tech companies selling to schools, it’s by no means easy to separate the genuinely useful products from the fads and the gimmicks," he said.

He told how he has seen state-of-the-art technology allowing pupils to explore Amazonian rainforests, steer ships and programme robots in some schools.

But Mr Hinds said it is “disappointing” that many in the education sector are failing to embrace these kinds of digital advances.  

He said if used appropriately, technology has a huge potential to support students’ learning, save money and reduce the workload of teachers.

“Technology will never be able to replace the motivated, inspirational effect of a great teacher, but it can support great teaching and save teachers’ time so they can focus on what matters,” Mr Hinds said. 

“By forging a strong partnership between government, technology innovators and the sector, we can transform how education is delivered for the learners of today and tomorrow.” 

The Education Secretary said he intends to host a summit of education and technology leaders to discuss what kind of products are actually needed in schools.

Officials at the Department for Education said they are particularly interested in technology that can be used to help children with particular educational needs, to speed up the process of marking tests and to ease the administrative burden on teachers.


Australia: Freedom of speech comes first as uni upgrades campus rally security

La Trobe University administrators will pay to beef-up security on campus for a Liberal Party event featuring prominent therapist and social commentator Bettina Arndt, after protesters threatened to derail the event with a “rally against sexism and bigotry”.

Liberal students at La Trobe have considered changing the date of Ms Arndt’s address over fears they wouldn’t be able to pay for ­security to restrain a rally planned to coincide with her speech.

But university administrators yesterday told The Australian they had decided the university would cover the cost of security, out of a desire to preserve free speech and discussion on campus. “We welcome free speech and the event will go ahead,” a spokesman said.

“Event security will be provided by the university at no cost to student organisers.”

Liberal students arrived at university this week to find the campus dotted with posters urging students to protest against Ms Arndt, who will deliver an address challenging claims of a rape crisis on campus.

University administrators have charged the club $235 for room booking and one security guard to cover the event. The invoice also stated the club was liable for the total cost, which will depend on final numbers, hours worked and other variables such as damage.

Club members had said they were concerned additional security costs could force them to pull the event. But they applauded the university’s decision yesterday to meet the security costs.

“It’s an exciting development, it just a shame that it came after a bit of media pressure and hopefully next time they’ll think twice before moving to censor an event off the bat,” La Trobe University Liberal Club president James Plozza told The Australian.

La Trobe University has ­repeatedly defended its desire to encourage free speech and robust debate on campus, despite administrators initially voicing concerns about Ms Arndt’s speech failing to align with the uni’s own campaign against sexual violence.

Free-market think thank the Institute of Public Affairs applauded the decision, and said more Australian universities should follow suit because the risk of protests was pricing clubs out of putting on provocative speakers.

Analysts pointed to Sydney University Conservative Club, which had to spend hundreds of dollars on additional ­security for an event headlined by conservative commentator Mir­anda Devine, on “the dangers of socialism”.

“The charging of security fees is censorious. It is punishing the victims of a potential abusive protest,” IPA research fellow Matthew Lesh said. “This also creates a ‘heckler’s veto’ because if they amass a big enough protest with high enough security costs then the Liberal students will not be able to afford to have her on campus. If (universities) fail to protect the speech of controversial figures they are failing to live up to their legal mandates to safeguard free expression.”


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