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ACLU letter urges CSU to reform campus police after admissions tour incident

The American Civil Liberties Union wrote a letter urging Colorado State University to take further action after two Native American students were removed from a campus tour last spring. 

In the letter, the ACLU states they are representing Kanewakeron Thomas Gray and Skanahwati Lloyd Gray, following the admissions tour incident, where a nervous parent reported the brothers for “suspicious behavior.”

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“We are calling on CSU police to amend their policies for dispatcher and officer response and to improve anti-bias training and policing practices that will respect the dignity of individuals,” wrote Sarah Hinger, staff attorney in the ACLU Racial Justice Program, in a news release published by the ACLU.

During the tour, police responded to a call about the young men, who are Native American and were visiting from New Mexico.

According to the CSU Police Department, a participating parent called campus police as she was nervous about the presence of the two young men who joined the tour while it was in progress. 

CSUPD confirmed the brothers were part of the tour and allowed them to return. However, the guide was unaware the police had been called, and the group had moved on. The Grays then left campus to return home to New Mexico. 

The ACLU asked University President Tony Frank to act on a May 4 letter sent to the campus community in response to these events. Frank wrote in the letter that the campus tour incident did not reflect the values of the University. 

“The very idea that someone – anyone – might ‘look’ like they don’t belong on a CSU Admissions tour is anathema,” Frank wrote in his letter. “People of all races, gender identities, orientations, cultures, religions, heritages and appearances belong here.”

Hinger, who also wrote the ACLU’s letter, wrote that although Frank’s letter expressed a “heartening promise,” that promise has not been translated into action. 

CSU Director of Public Affairs and Communications Mike Hooker wrote in a statement to The Collegian that the University shares a commitment to creating a community in which all people feel they belong.

“Our sincere, shared concern about the experience of Kanewakeron Thomas and Skanahwati Lloyd have only deepened this commitment,” Hooker wrote.

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Both Hinger and Hooker wrote that the ACLU and the University coordinated over the summer. Hooker wrote that the University has been working for some time to implement changes.

“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,” Hooker wrote.

Hooker also wrote that the University has made efforts to improve the way they manage campus tours as a follow-up to this incident.

“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,” Hooker wrote.

Additional efforts include name lists for tour guides and identification buttons for tour participants and enhanced tour guide training, intended to make the group welcome more robust while allowing for differences in communication ability and culture. 

The ACLU believes CSUPD’s policy on bias-based policing is not sufficient to prevent future bias-based calls, according to the letter. 

“We urge the CSU Police Department to implement additional training and to adopt specific policies addressing dispatcher and officer responses to bias-based reports,” Hinger wrote in the letter. 

The ACLU recommends CSUPD incorporate LEED principles: “Listen and Explain with Equity and Dignity.” Additionally, the ACLU suggests CSUPD adopt a “respond and observe” approach.

Shortly after the event, the University invited the brothers to return to campus to receive a personal tour and witness the Native American Cultural Centers’ positive programming.

“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,” Hooker wrote.

But, Hinger wrote that CSUPD’s current policy makes it impossible for the family to feel welcome on campus. 

In the ACLU news release, Lorraine Kahneratokwa Gray, mother of the brothers, expressed her frustration with the incident.

“My boys were publicly humiliated and told that their looks alone make them suspicious characters,” she said. “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. I hope they fix these policies, so other parents do not have to wonder if their children will be safe and welcomed on campus.”

Hinger wrote that the ACLU wants to encourage CSU – and by extension, other colleges – to take affirmative measures to ensure that their campuses are truly welcoming to all students.

“As a new school year begins, a new group of diverse students have arrived on the CSU campus. Before long, a new wave of prospective students will also visit the CSU campus,” Hinger wrote. “We write with renewed urgency to ensure that CSU can make good on its promise for these new and prospective students.”

Natalia Sperry and Austin Fleskes can be reached at news@collegian.com, or on Twitter @Natalia_Sperry and @Austinfleskes07.

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