Newsroom noose leads to firing, fierce campus debate

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 15, 2007 - 7:15 AM

Black students are upset that Minneapolis Community and Technical College did not disclose the incident sooner.

MCTC student editor
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Margaret Campbell, center, editor of the student paper at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, fired a news editor after he hung a noose from the ceiling of the newsroom as a threat to students who didn’t turn assignments in on time. Two students who filed complaints were Senah Yeboah-Sampong, left, online editor, and Sita Hinds, business manager of City College News.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Gabriel Keith said he had no understanding of the racist implications of a noose when he taped one to the ceiling of the newsroom at the campus newspaper at Minneapolis Community Technical College last month.

"I am definitely aware of it now," says Keith, who was fired as the paper's news editor and has become the center of a robust debate over cultural sensitivity at the campus where nearly half the 11,800-student population is minority and 30 percent are black.

Two student groups held a protest rally last week to express outrage over the noose and plan more meetings today. The school administration has organized a meeting with students over the noon hour.

Accusations are flying, both about the incident and the college's response. Some students find it difficult to believe Keith, 26, didn't know what he was doing. They also say the college tried to prevent the campus paper from reporting it.

Administrators deny the accusations.

"We want to educate around cultural understanding," said Laura Fedock, interim associate vice president for academic and student affairs. "We need to teach each other when something is offensive. ... We hope students will come to talk this out."

But Chris Smith, 22, who is black and a member of a student multicultural group, says the school should learn something about transparency. "I'm concerned that it took a whole month to find out about it. Why didn't the school tell us about it?"We are angry," said Lisa Dean, 31, president of Associates of Black Collegians, a student group. "If we do not nip it in the bud, it will spread and a lot of students may not want to attend this college because of racism."

Keith said it wasn't racism, but what he thought was a joke Oct. 10, when he came up with the idea of displaying a noose to encourage student reporters at the City College News to turn in their articles on time.

There were other suggestions, he said, including using a knife, but Keith settled on the noose. He asked a fellow student, also white, to make a noose, which he did, from a drawstring on Keith's sweater.

Two other students in the room, Sita Hinds, 30, the business manager for the paper, and Senah Yeboah-Sampong, 22, the online editor, both of whom are black, said they discouraged Keith from doing it.

"I said, 'It's not a good idea, don't hang up the noose, why not put something else up,'" said Hinds. But Keith climbed on a table and taped it to the ceiling with a note telling students to turn in their articles.

After a few uncomfortable minutes, in which Keith said Yeboah-Sampong told him, "If you don't take it down, I will," Keith took it down, threw it in the trash and left.

What happened next has provoked the larger complaints about insensitivity -- both by Keith and the college.

When the paper's 20-year-old editor, Margaret Campbell, who is white, learned of the incident she fired Keith. But the newspaper's adviser, Ben Lathrop, thought Keith should be suspended, not fired, pending an investigation.

At a meeting with Campbell, Hinds and Yeboah-Sampong, Keith apologized.

"I feel my actions were unprofessional so it was totally warranted that they kicked me off the newspaper," Keith said in an interview. But Keith, an Iraqi war veteran, insists he is not a racist. He said when he taped the noose to the ceiling, he was unaware of recent incidents, such as the nooses white high schools students hung from a tree in Jena, La., after black students asked to sit there.

"I heard about something to do with a noose, but I didn't even think of it," he said. "I don't watch the news."

Still, Hinds and Yeboah-Sampong filed complaints. The college investigated and found "the incident was not intended to target an individual or group of individuals based on race," says Fedock.

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MCTC student editor