One day after Yale Police officers questioned a black graduate student who was reported by a white graduate student for sleeping in a Hall of Graduate Studies common room, the University sent an email to graduate and professional school students on Wednesday night describing the incident as “deeply troubling” and reaffirming Yale’s commitment to addressing incidents of “racial bias, discrimination and harassment.”
Early Tuesday morning, Yale police officers interrogated the black graduate student, Lolade Siyonbola GRD ’19, for more than 15 minutes in response to the complaint by the white graduate student, Sarah Braasch GRD ’20, about an unknown woman sleeping in the HGS common room. According to a public statement by Yale Police Chief Ronnell Higgins, Braasch told the police in her call that she did not know who Siyonbola was.
The email, sent by University Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Goff-Crews stated that Yale police “admonished the complaining student that the other student had every right to be present.”
Higgins said in his statement that the responding police officers also told Braasch that her complaint was not a police matter and that they would report the incident to Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Lynn Cooley.
On Thursday night, University President Peter Salovey sent the Yale community an email of his own affirming “Yale’s commitment to equity and inclusion on our campus.” He wrote in the email that he met with multiple University leaders on Thursday to address the challenges Yale faces in ensuring an inclusive environment on campus.
“Universities are not utopias, and people of color experience racism on our campus as they do elsewhere in our country. This fact angers and disappoints me,” Salovey wrote. “Each of us has the power to fight against prejudice and fear. I hope you will join me in doing so.”
The incident gained significant traction on social media after Siyonbola live streamed two videos on Facebook — one of her interactions with Braasch and another of her interactions with four police officers. As of Thursday evening, a video showing her interacting with police had garnered more than 1.2 million views, 13,000 reactions, and 19,700 comments. Over 11,700 people have shared the video.
“You’re in a Yale Building and we need to make sure that you belong here,” one of the officers said to Siyonbola after first approaching her in the video showing Siyonbola’s interactions with the police.
In her email, Goff-Crews also announced that she, alongside Higgins and Cooley, will hold listening sessions with students in upcoming days and months to help avoid similar incidents in the future. She added that she will work with student leaders and administrators to act on suggestions from the Yale community to improve the University’s response to incidents of discrimination and harassment.
“We still have so much more to do,” Goff-Crews wrote in the email. “All of us in senior leadership recognize that incidents such as this one are being framed within a difficult national context.”
Goff-Crews announced early Friday morning that she, Higgins and Cooley will hold their first open session on Friday afternoon to let students “share your feelings, express your frustrations, and make suggestions.”
In the second video Siyonbola live streamed, she accused the police of harassing her.
“I deserve to be here; I paid tuition like everybody else; I am not going to justify my existence here,” Siyonbola told one of the police officers on video after she was asked to “sit tight” while they verified her student information. “I am not going to be harassed.”
Braasch, who was identified on social media by Yale students as stills and clips from Siyonbola’s videos circulated online, has not responded to multiple requests for comment. By the early hours of Thursday morning, Siyonbola’s Facebook posts had been updated to identify Braasch by name.
Siyonbola told the News that while “this is what has happened in America since day one,” she is concerned that there will be more incidents of the police being called on black students accused of being potential intruders at Yale.
The second video Siyonbola streamed on Facebook shows her voluntarily unlocking her dormitory door in HGS to prove to the Yale police officers present that she resided in the building. After this, the police officers asked Siyonbola what she was doing in the common room, how she spells her name, and to provide her student ID for verification, according to the video.
A YPD supervisor told Siyonbola in the video that the verification of her student ID and living status at HGS was “protocol.”
In his statement, Higgins said police interviewed Braasch for over 11 minutes beginning at around 1:45 a.m., while two other officers interviewed Siyonbola for “about 15 minutes.” He said the officer who interviewed Braasch started to think that Siyonbola was likely a student after finding a computer, books, notebooks, blanket and pillow where she was stationed in the HGS common room.
According to the police officers in the video, Siyonbola’s name was not spelled correctly in a database of student information used by the YPD, leading to confusion about her status as a student. Higgins said that Siyonbola’s official name on her ID differed from the preferred name she had listed in the YPD database. As a result, the ID assessment took roughly 15 minutes, which is “longer than usual,” Higgins said.
After speaking with Braasch about her actions for seven minutes, he added, the officers left HGS at about 2:34 a.m.
Cooley sent an email to all PhD and masters students in the Graduate School on Tuesday evening emphasizing the importance of inclusivity and inviting students to share their comments and concerns in light of the incident.
“Incidents like that of last night remind us of the continued work needed to make Yale a truly inclusive place,” Cooley wrote. “I am committed to redoubling our efforts to build a supportive community in which all graduate students are empowered in their intellectual pursuits and professional goals within a welcoming environment. An essential part of that effort must be a commitment to mutual respect and an open dialog.”
According to Siyonbola and Jean-Louis Reneson GRD ’19, another black graduate student, this is not the first time Braasch has called the police to HGS.
In March, Reneson and Siyonbola submitted a complaint about a separate incident to Associate Dean for Graduate Student Development and Diversity Michelle Nearon. According to a copy of the complaint Reneson provided to the News, the incident began when Siyonbola invited several colleagues, including Reneson, to a meeting in the HGS common room on February 24. Reneson, lost in HGS, was physically blocked by Braasch from entering the common room after he asked her for directions, the complaint read.
Reneson told the News that Braasch did not appear to believe that he was a Yale student trying to enter the HGS common room for a meeting, and instead accused him of being an intruder.
“Feeling ignored, I went down to the base of the twelfth floor and eleventh floor and turned my back, but she continued to verbally assault me from the twelfth floor claiming that I ‘didn’t belong here’ and I was making her ‘uncomfortable,’” Reneson said.
Reneson said that Braasch then left the area, and Siyonbola subsequently showed up to begin the meeting. But, according to the complaint, four police officers then showed up in HGS to inspect a “suspicious character” on the twelfth floor. According to the complaint, shortly after establishing that Reneson was a Yale student invited by Siyonbola for a meeting in HGS, the police left.
In an email to Reneson sent on Wednesday, following the most recent incident involving Siyonbola, Cooley confirmed that the same student called the police on both occasions.
“[Cooley] just finally sent me an email to discuss it,” Reneson said. “It’s her job to know these things, but now it’s damage control.”
The complaint submitted by Reneson and Siyonbola stated that calling the police on Reneson and other “acts of micro-aggression and psychological violence” at the University leave many black graduate and professional students feeling unsafe.
Siyonbola told the News that she found Cooley’s response to the latest police incident in HGS inadequate.
“The response from Dean Cooley has been terrible. I don’t remember receiving any sort of apology or anything from her the first time, and this time the email that she sent was very vague, just not decisive, it just wasn’t direct with what the actual issues are,” Siyonbola said. “Do you want black students at Yale or do you not want black students at Yale? If you do, then be very clear about taking decisive action so incidents do not continue to happen. We don’t want to wait for a fatality, we don’t want to wait for what happened at Harvard before actual action is taken on this.”
The Harvard incident Siyonbola was referring to took place on April 13, when a black Harvard undergraduate standing naked in a street was tackled and punched by police officers during an arrest. On April 30, Harvard announced that it would review the events which led to the student’s arrest. Harvard University President Drew Faust wrote in an email to the Harvard community that “it is clear, in light of the recent incident and the ensuing conversations, that there is work for us to do.”
Cooley told the News that she monitored the first incident involving Reneson closely, and that she is “completely sympathetic to the feelings of Ms. Siyonbola and Mr. Reneson.” She added that, although Yale has appointed and trained dean designees to work with students on discrimination and harassment complaints, the University needs to do more to provide a supportive and inclusive learning community for students.
Yale announced new resources to address discrimination and harassment concerns in October 2017, which included dean’s designees in the graduate and professional schools “to whom students may express their concerns about any form of discrimination and harassment,” and an updated version of the Bulldog Mobile (LiveSafe) app that allows users to anonymously report issues of harassment and discrimination to various University officers.
Britton O’Daly | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, May 10: This version of the story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Jean-Louis Reneson’s name in all references.
Update, May 10: This story has been updated to include comments made by University President Peter Salovey and Yale Police Chief Ronnell Higgins in statements sent to the Yale community on Thursday.