Guest Editorial: Colo. Paper calls for calm after NM brothers singled out

Farmington Daily Times
Guest Editorial

Life's messiness recently delivered a parcel of teaching moments to Colorado State University when a campus tour for prospective students and their parents turned into international news.

The storm surrounding the unfortunate experience of two Native American brothers from New Mexico who were singled out and scrutinized while on campus simply because they looked different has subsided a bit since April 30.

We hope lessons learned from the incident — such as the reality and toxicity of bias and the importance of transparency when addressing wrongs — last longer than the average social media uproar.

You know the story: Thomas Kanewakeron Gray, 19, and Lloyd Skanahwati Gray, 17, drove from Española, New Mexico, to Fort Collins for a scheduled campus tour. They arrived late.

They joined a tour in progress and were not particularly forthcoming when asked questions by members of the group. Their appearance and behavior alarmed a woman on the tour: She called CSU police to report her concern, even as she said, "It's probably nothing. I'm probably being completely paranoid with just everything that's happened ..."

Officers responded, connecting with the tour group as it came down a busy staircase in the recreation center. The brothers were pulled aside and questioned by officers, who determined within a few minutes the teens were on campus legitimately and sent them on their way.

By then, the tour group was long gone, its student guide unaware that something had happened to the brothers. The teens could not locate the group, so they eventually left campus for the return drive to New Mexico.

Soon thereafter, their mother, Lorraine Kahneratokwas Gray, posted on social media her understandable anger and frustration over what she perceived to be a case of blatant racial profiling. And the story took off.

CSU responded quickly and effectively to the outrage thrown its way by issuing statements and releasing audio of the woman's 911 call and body-cam video of the officers' encounter with the brothers.

CSU did the right thing by allowing direct information access to anyone who cared to see and hear what happened. People could determine on their own whether the incident was as disturbing as they were led to believe.

Apologetic university officials say they want to do right by the brothers and at least reimburse their travel expenses and offer them VIP treatment on another tour. As of this writing, the Gray family was not responding to CSU.

The story may or may not be over. Lorraine Gray has told media outlets another visit to CSU would be highly unlikely and she wants advice from the American Civil Liberties Union.

This simple, isolated incident touches on a lot of complex issues, including race, bias, effective communication and perceptions about safety. But mostly, it's just sad.

It's sad that the New Mexico teens wound up feeling unwelcome at CSU.

It's sad that a woman on a campus tour called police because seeing black-clad teens whose behavior did not match her expectations made her feel so uncomfortable.

It's sad that her reaction made sense, at a certain level, in the wake of school shootings and other violent atrocities. She was being vigilant, as we've all been told to be. This is the age of "see something, say something," after all.

It's sad that this incident was amplified by several racist and anti-Semitic acts on the CSU campus this school year. Just weeks ago, the community rallied against hatred through the CSUnite event.

We live in a time when overreaction and hypervigilance are the norms. It's time to step away from the edges of emotion and the accompanying "us vs. them" mentality.

Let's calm down, take deep breaths, and recognize the humanity in each other even in uncomfortable situations.

CSU is already planning changes to how admissions tours are conducted so group members are easily identified. Police will receive training on how to engage with visitors during tours and similar events.

Those steps could help prevent a repeat of this sort of incident. However, until we change how we view and treat those who are different from ourselves, misunderstandings, hurt feelings and distrust will just go on.
(Fort Collins) Coloradoan, May 10