On Monday night, Colgate University officials warned that there was an armed person on campus and advised people to find a safe place. For several hours, the campus remained locked down.
Everyone was safe. There was no gunman, police later determined. But many students were angry when they learned the reason for the alarm: Someone called Colgate’s Campus Safety when they saw a black student who had a glue gun that he was using for a school project.
The incident reignited a debate over race at the private liberal-arts college in New York.
In an email to the campus community Tuesday morning, school officials wrote: “The events of last night have been deeply distressing to the community.” After the lockdown, they wrote, “At a large gathering at the chapel, which did not conclude until after 2 a.m., many students expressed their profound dismay that a student of color engaged in academic activity could be identified as a threat to the campus.”
Nitika Sachdev, a senior at Colgate, wrote that the incident was hauntingly similar to the death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was killed by police while he was playing with a toy gun. “I wonder what would had happened, had we not gone to an elite university,” Sachdev asked. “Would they have shot him?”
At noon Tuesday, Brian Casey, the university’s president, sent a message to the campus community saying he had asked for a complete review of the incident. “It is important that we understand the role that implicit racial bias had in the initial reporting of and responses to the events of last night.
” … In addition, communication and enforcement steps were taken that, I believe, confused and harmed this campus and our students.
“As a first step, I have asked Campus Safety Director Bill Ferguson, who was leading university security efforts last night, to take an administrative leave from his position effective immediately while we conduct a review of the events of last night.”
A senior at Colgate described the person who prompted the lockdown as a freshman who “ran fearing for his life having heard that there were reports of an active shooter on campus. … a SWAT team, a tank, and police units from across the area were called in, all because some random person saw a black man with a glue gun and assumed the worst.”
In 2014, she noted, “people of color voiced their experiences of racism and white supremacy on this campus through the curriculum, admissions policy, faculty demographics, and institutional practices. What happened tonight was the manifestation of the systematic racism that exists at Colgate.”
The lockdown happened on a day when many people had been reading news of an attack at the University of Texas at Austin that left one student dead and three wounded. That stabbing prompted campus police there to urge the public to call police anytime they are concerned.
"Should I call 911?" If you ask yourself that question, just do it. Let police sort it out. If you feel even slightly threatened, call 911. pic.twitter.com/IAvsHAkrtw
— UT Austin Police (@UTAustinPolice) May 2, 2017
Just a few days earlier, a knife attack at Transylvania University sent a student to the hospital.
But some students said those attacks are irrelevant to how people responded at Colgate to a student working on a project.
Daniel Berry, a senior double-majoring in peace and conflict studies and art, wrote in an email that it happened at a time when the senior class has been debating the campus tradition of a torchlight ceremony online. “This tradition usually involves students walking down the hill in robes carrying torches. Last year, some seniors gave up the robes and torches to walk instead in class sweaters. This year, there is talk of using candles instead of torches and keeping the robes. In my opinion, the entire thing holds racist imagery, and I do not plan on participating in it this year. The ceremony or whatever started when Colgate was all white and all male, and realizing this is imperative to understanding how it remains harmful and traumatic for many students of color on campus.”
In a debate on Facebook, someone pushed back against the idea that the tradition, and people in robes carrying torches, were inherently offensive. “Colgate students aren’t Nazis or Klansmen for wanting to carry *torches* at *Torchlight* … Torchlight is not about mob violence, fascism, racism, etc. … Any cultural phenomena or tradition can be found to be offensive when examined with the reckless lens of political correctness.”
Several colleges are in the midst of protests over the way black students are treated; at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, a racist note left on a student’s car was the latest in a series of incidents that pushed students to demand change.
At American University in Washington, students planned to protest Tuesday after bananas were found suspended from string on campus in what the school called a racist incident.
Patrick Kilkenny, a senior at Colgate, wrote that the lockdown is an example of the “hostilities and aggressions Black students feel on this campus every day,” and that the university should address the situation head-on “and not just pretend this was some isolated error that can be forgiven and forgotten.”
The president of the student government association did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
On social media, some people reacted with shock, and others with snark.
*black man works on an art project*
— Drew O'Hara (@OHaraDrew) May 2, 2017
— Grace Hayba (@Gracie_lou222) May 2, 2017
Here is the message from the university’s president in full:
Community Message in Response to May 1 Incident
Sent by President Brian W. Casey at Noon, May 2
Dear Members of the Colgate Community,
This morning I received an update from Campus Safety regarding the events of last night, details of which I want to share with the campus. Please know that I have called for a thorough, deeper review of all matters related to last night — from the original reporting of the events to the University’s response. I will have this report within ten days and I will share its findings with the campus.
At a few minutes before 8 PM last night a Colgate student called Colgate Campus Safety reporting that they had seen a black male entering the Coop, carrying what appeared to be a gun. A few minutes later, Campus Safety sent out the first of two campus announcements, the first identifying an “Emergency Situation” and the second indicating, in a profound error, that there was an active shooter on the campus. (The remaining campus notices last night were sent out by our Communications Office and an emergency response team.)
After the initial report, Campus Safety contacted local law enforcement units, which proceeded to engage in steps associated with reports of a person with a gun in a public setting. Only after it was determined that the person in the Coop was a Colgate student — who had a glue gun needed for an art project — was Campus Safety able to end the campus lockdown.
To more fully understand the events of last night, we are in contact with the student who had the glue gun and will be with the student who made the initial report. Importantly, I am also in contact with those who were making the essential administrative decisions last night.
It is important that we understand the role that implicit racial bias had in the initial reporting of and responses to the events of last night. I want to make sure we speak with those who made and received the initial report to understand the role this played.
More egregiously, perhaps, was the effect profiling had on the response of safety officers and other University offices to these events. In addition, communication and enforcement steps were taken that, I believe, confused and harmed this campus and our students. As a first step, I have asked Campus Safety Director Bill Ferguson, who was leading university security efforts last night, to take an administrative leave from his position effective immediately while we conduct a review of the events of last night.
This has been a difficult, painful several hours on this campus. My obligation is, first, to demand a full accounting of what happened. My next obligation is to take steps to ensure the safety of all Colgate students, faculty and staff. My final obligation — my desire — is to improve Colgate. If there is anything that can and should come from these events it must be that concrete steps are taken to make Colgate a better place, and a university worthy of both regard and respect.
Brian W. Casey