On September 26, six Native American high schoolers from the Wind River Reservation were visiting UW with 600 other prospective students for a weekend event called ‘Campus Pass.’ They planned to tour campus and watch a Cowboy football game.
“We got there in the morning, and we had some free time to go walk around and check things out, so we went to the campus bookstore,” says Kaleb Groesbeck.
Groesbeck, his classmates and their chaperones all wore matching white t-shirts with “Saint Stephens Indian High School” printed on them in red. While the kids split up and browsed the store, another visitor told employees she saw someone in a St. Stephens shirt stealing merchandise.
“We were just looking at things and we saw these guys get searched,” says Brylee Shakespeare. “So we went to check it out, and then we got searched too.”
“I got searched three times,” says Jaron Arthur. “After the first time I got searched, I felt like I shouldn’t be searched again.”
Bookstore employees rummaged through some bags of UW swag the kids had received on their campus visit. Unable to identify a suspect, they searched all six students—and found no evidence of shoplifting. Miklo Oldman thought that would be the end of it.
“They searched us and they were like, ‘okay, you guys are good,” says Oldman. “There’s nothing in there.’ And then we’re just walking around again.”
But the employees had called the UW Police Department. When an officer arrived at the bookstore, she rounded up the kids again. No more searches but Oldman says it was embarrassing.
“I just didn’t like how they stopped us in front of everyone—and everyone just kept looking at us like we did something,” says Oldman. “It was like we actually stole or something—or we’re criminals or something.”
The officer then detained the students and chaperones in a conference room for about an hour. She took down the students’ information, ran their names in a law enforcement database—and tried to call some of their parents.
“I just kept asking if we were in trouble,” says Oldman. “And they said no, so I asked why do you need my information? They just said it’s policy or whatever.”
UWPD says it is policy to call the parents of any minors they make contact with—even if nobody’s in trouble.
The officer’s report shows she made contact with one parent. Taylor Littleshield, who is 18, says that was his mom.
“She texted me right after and said, ‘were you stealing?” says Littleshield. “So, I almost got in trouble for not stealing.”
“From the initiation of this entire situation, what the students and their families were looking for was just for an apology,” says St. Stephens High School principal Cheryl Meyers. “They felt offended.”
A few days after the incident, Meyers wrote a letter to UW expressing concerns about the search and detention. Around that same time, one of the students’ relatives called a UW employee and said she believed racial profiling had occurred.
UW investigated, and 10 days after the incident, released a report claiming there no evidence of racial bias. Meyers says that investigation missed the point.
“I was anticipating a broader scope,” says Meyers. “Of looking and identifying whether the search was legitimized, whether the detention was legitimized. Not necessarily whether it was racial profiling or discrimination.”
UWPD responded to only three other suspected shoplifting incidents at the campus bookstore in the past 12 months. None involved juveniles. Police Chief Mike Samp says bookstore employees followed protocols and while his officer found no probable cause to cite anyone for anything, her detention of the students was by the book.
“Since some of these individuals were juveniles, we do make an attempt to contact parents— just to explain the nature of that contact by law enforcement and alleviate any concerns that they might have,” says Samp. “The officer that did get sent over to the bookstore to investigate that situation acted appropriately, she acted within policy, and there’s certainly nothing improper about what she did.”
UW President Dick McGinity met with St. Stephen’s administrators twice since the incident. First, a week after—and again at a school board meeting on October 13.
“I am satisfied that there were no laws broken,” says McGinity. “There was not racial profiling. There was not violation of civil rights or state law, for that matter. Having said that, there were things that were done by the University—or things that happened in the bookstore that, I would say, in hindsight, could have been handled somewhat better. As for the upset that was caused, I’m sorry about that.”
McGinity says some of the policies at play here should be reexamined. Like the multiple searches. And the detaining kids for an hour with no evidence to call their parents. He said as much in a letter to Principal Cheryl Meyers one month after the incident. McGinity says he wants to mend UW’s relationship with the St. Stephens students.
“I want very much for students from the Reservation to be here at the University,” says McGinity. “There’s a good number, but I’d like to see it larger.”
All six of the St. Stephen’s students were thinking of applying to the University, but they say they are now somewhat undecided.
When asked what their worries about attending the University are, Brylee Shakespeare simply says, “Being treated like that again.”
The St. Stephens school board is still reviewing President McGinity’s letter—as well as bookstore surveillance footage—before responding. They next meet in mid-November.