(Opinion column) — Here’s something you will probably never see happen in this enlightened age of treating minorities fairly:
A customer tells store employees she believes another patron may have shoplifted. Because the suspect can’t be narrowed down to a single person by this eyewitness, employees round up all members of the same race as the alleged thief (white/black/Latino/Asian) and quiz them.
The customers are told they can’t leave, and store staff members ask them all to consent to a search. Since the exit is blocked and they can’t go anywhere until they prove their innocence, the intimidated customers comply.
That’s completely unimaginable, isn’t it? No store would take all the customers of one race and detain and search them to find out if one is a shoplifter.
But on Sept. 26, that scenario played out at the University Store on the University of Wyoming campus in Laramie, and the victims were Native Americans. Six male seniors from St. Stephens Indian High School were treated that way after a customer thought she saw an attempt to put an item in a bag without paying for it, according to an official UW report. Accounts differ whether the alleged shoplifter acted by himself or had a helper.
The witness notified workers at the customer service desk, but apparently couldn’t identify which student was the culprit. All she knew was the person was wearing a white T-shirt with red lettering.
The half-dozen students wore shirts that identified them as being from “St. Stephens Indian High School.” Store employees were fully aware all six were Native Americans. Two other customers who wore the same shirts weren’t stopped. They were both Caucasian.
The search request was made, and the students showed staff members their shopping bags and everything else they were carrying.
Finding nothing that hadn’t been paid for, the students prepared to leave. But before they could exit, a campus policewoman who had been called by employees arrived and took them back to a back room connected to the store for further questioning. Because four of the students were minors, she followed police procedure and called their parents about the alleged shoplifting incident — one that the store already determined no one in the group committed.
You can easily imagine how that news went over with parents back at St. Stephens.
Their high school principal, Cheryl Meyers, said two boys were searched twice, and another student three times, before the group was finally allowed to leave the bookstore.
A complaint alleging racial discrimination was made by a student’s relative to a UW bookstore employee on Sept. 29, causing UW to launch an investigation into the matter. The following day Meyers called President Dick McGinity, when the inquiry was already underway. The principal said McGinity later met with her in person and told her she would hear from him when the probe was completed, before any information was made public. She recalled UW’s president said he wanted to work together “to move forward in a positive way.”
Several days later she received word that said the university determined the incident was not racial profiling or discrimination under UW’s regulations, and all employees involved had acted in accordance with campus procedure.
In a news release, a stunned Meyers called UW’s report “an insult to the intelligence of myself, the students and their parents, and every reasonable prudent citizen of our Nation.”
It was an insult to everyone, including members of the UW community who would never think about considering all members of a race present at an alleged crime guilty until they prove their innocence.
I also think it would be nearly impossible for any Native American to not consider the probe a whitewash. The scope of the investigation seems to have been limited to whether the employees followed the store’s procedures for handling a shoplifting allegation. UW concluded they had, but the incident was mishandled from the beginning.
When a single suspect could not be identified, it was a mistake to gather every Native American in the store into a room for questioning and searches. That’s racial profiling.
The underlying issue here is whether the institution’s handling of an alleged shoplifting incident violated six Native American students’ right to due process, and that question is far from being definitively answered.
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and requires any warrant to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause. The Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause prohibits state and government officials from depriving persons of life, liberty or property without legislative authorization.
In her statement, Meyers pointed out another disturbing element of UW’s investigation: “Not one staff member or student from St. Stephens Indian High School was contacted by the university’s investigator at any time.”
An investigation without any information from people who were accused of a crime, detained and searched? How could that possibly be considered fair and complete?
There’s also the question of why some common sense (and sensitivity) wasn’t exercised by UW employees before the incident escalated into a full-blown racial controversy. It’s not like the university hasn’t been charged with racial discrimination before, most notably the infamous Black 14 case in 1969.
Fourteen black members of UW’s football team planned to wear black armbands during a game against BYU to protest the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ prohibition of blacks from the priesthood. The coach prohibited the protest and dismissed the players. It became a national story, and plunged UW into a storm of controversy that is still remembered by the university and its athletic program today.
The city of Laramie’s reputation was forever tarnished internationally after the death of a member of another minority when gay UW student Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered in 1998.
These incidents may have happened long ago, but they remain fundamental reasons why UW needs to be especially concerned about its treatment of minority students. Unfortunately, its internal investigation of the handling of the St. Stephens debacle has only created more doubt among Native American students about how they will be treated at UW.
UW should be commended for its much-respected American Indian Studies Program. It allows students of other races to learn about the history of a culture that isn’t well understood by the mainstream. But UW has never fared particularly well in its recruitment of Native American students.
It’s difficult to accurately pinpoint how many Native American students attend UW. The university’s website says .57 percent of its student population is Native American, but it does not provide a number. Collegeportrait.org, a website that tracks such information, says UW had 56 Native American and Alaskan Native students during the fall 2014 semester.
At a 2013 University of Wyoming forum on Native American education, a tribal leader estimated only a dozen students from the Wind River Indian Reservation go to UW. No one in the audience challenged that figure.
All six of the students searched at the bookstore were planning to attend UW, according to Meyers. If they all still enroll, it could increase the population of students from the reservation on campus by up to 50 percent.
The St. Stephens students shouldn’t judge the entire university based on their experience at the bookstore, but how could it not be a major factor in their decision whether to enroll? UW officials should do everything they can to let the students know that mistakes were made, and emphasize to campus employees the need for fair treatment of all minorities they encounter.
Initially, Meyers’ response to what happened at UW was that it could be used as a learning tool for students who have had to deal with incidents of racial discrimination all of their lives. After the UW probe, the principal said she would be making a formal recommendation to her superintendent and school board about “moving forward” on the issue. It sounds like that learning tool for the students could involve some trips to court unless UW officials can finesse their way out of a lawsuit.
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