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A small Kansas community college finds itself in the spotlight amid allegations of racial animosity

Derrick Thomas and Kejuan Carson.jpg
Frank Morris
/
KCUR and NPR
Highland football players Derrick Thomas and Kejuan Carson say they come in for special scrutiny at the school and around town for the way they wear their hair

Tiny Highland Community College in northeast Kansas attracts students from all over the country who attend on athletic scholarships. But in the last couple of years, the school has been sued for alleged hostility toward its Black student-athletes. Then the college president compared a Black football player to Hitler.

Highland, Kansas, is a town of about 1,000 people surrounded by miles and miles of rolling cornfields. There’s one gas station, no stoplights. But Highland Community College is a magnet for people like Aiden Moore. It offered him something no other school did, namely a shot at playing college football.

“It was really my last chance,” says Moore, remembering a call he got from a Highland recruiter. “I had interest from big-time schools, but I just didn’t have the grades.”

Moore made the trip from his home in Louisville, Kentucky, joined the Highland Scotties, and enrolled in classes. But he soon wished he had kept his construction job in Louisville. A sophomore this year, he says a white coach called him a “gangster with a genius IQ” and otherwise made fun of his intellect. He says campus police hound him and other black players on the team in a relentless effort to catch them smoking pot. He says townspeople sometimes seem scared to share space with them in the gas station or even to see him and other players on the street.

In a tiny school in a tiny, rural town, Black student-athletes feel conspicuous and scrutinized, even under attack.

Kejuan Carson, who hails from Auburn, Alabama, says he was cut from Highland’s football team this month after he asked permission to skip a practice to finish an English paper.

“And I thought everything was cool," Carson says. "But later on that day, that's when people started telling me I got kicked off the team."

He says the team has cut at least two dozen players, all of them Black, since the beginning of the year.

B.J. Smith, a former Highland women’s basketball coach, says harsh treatment of Black student-athletes dates to 2019 when Highland hired a new president, Deborah Fox, who brought in a new athletic director, Bryan Dorrel. Smith says Dorrell immediately laid down the law.

“His exact words were I needed to recruit more kids the culture of our community could relate to,” Smith says. “I honestly don't know what you mean. What, what are you saying? And he very aggressively said you know exactly what I'm saying. He wanted me to recruit more kids that looked like the people that lived in Highland.”

From then on, Smith says, the school looked for excuses to punish Black players, suspend them from games and even expel them from school.

“You need to look right. You act right, speak when spoken to, you know, there's a terminology for what they want of Black people,” Smith says.

Making Highland "white again"

In 2019, Highland’s winning football coach, Aaron Arnold, who is white, resigned. The next year, the ACLU of Kansas sued the school on behalf of four Black students, alleging it sought to reduce the number of its Black students. The school settled the lawsuit eight months after it was filed, agreeing to pay up to $15,000 to each of the four students and pledging to provide anti-discrimination and Fourth Amendment training to staff and administrators.

Smith, among the nation’s most successful junior college women’s basketball coaches at the time, lost his job that same year when his contract wasn’t renewed.

A man in a blue shirt poses with arms folded against a tree with a community college behind him.
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
B.J. Smith, the fired head coach of the women's basketball team at Highland Community College, says what happened there “is one of those things that a lot of people will initially go, ‘Well, that can’t be true in today’s world, that can’t happen.’”

Earlier this month, Smith, who is white, and two assistant coaches, both Black, sued the school, claiming it was seeking to get rid of its Black student-athletes. Parkville, Missouri, attorney Bill Odle, who represents them, says the coaches refused to go along with a pattern of abusive behavior toward Black players.

“It's a concerted campaign to make Highland white again,” Odle says.

Fox, Highland's president, issued a statement strongly denying the allegations and asserting that almost half the student-athletes at Highland are Black, the same percentage as when Smith lost his job. She said the school is looking forward to presenting its case for getting rid of Smith.

Smith has been ousted before. He was the women’s basketball coach at Southeast Missouri State University when the school was caught up in a flurry of basketball recruiting violations, resulting in NCAA sanctions. In 2014, while at Highland, he pleaded guilty to participating in an illegal car theft ring by helping to obscure the paper trail of cars that had previously been sold for salvage. Smith, who says he didn’t know about the stolen cars, was given probation and Highland kept him on as the women's basketball coach.

But Smith said the school never specified what, if any, violations he had committed when it didn’t renew his contract. Smith says the school is attacking him to mask its own deplorable behavior.

"A great learning experience"

School officials declined to comment. But Ryan Kuhnert, a 2009 Highland graduate, insists the school values diversity.

“When I went to Highland it was the most Black people I had ever encountered in my life being from a small farm town," Kuhnert says. "And it was a great learning experience for me."

Kuhnert says the school’s treatment of Black student-athletes is in keeping with the strict discipline he saw imposed on everyone, white or Black.

Highland farmer Jerry Blevins agrees and says the college is just trying to strengthen its ties to the community.

“The reason why they want Kansas kids, it has nothing to do with Black or white. They want local kids, so with their parents and family and stuff,” Blevins says.

But the racial issues at Highland Community College were made stark earlier this month when The Kansas City Star published a recording of Fox likening a Black football player to Hitler, whom she called “a great leader."

Fox said in a subsequent statement that she meant the player was misdirecting his own substantial leadership abilities and she apologized. But, for Ann Myers, whose son attended Highland, that apology fell well short.

“That that was a bad, bad call. I felt disgusted as a human being,” she says.

A wide shot of an indoor basketball court shows bleachers and a sign on a far wall that reads "Scotties."
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Ben Allen Field House at Highland Community College houses the Scotties volleyball and basketball teams.

Myers sent off her son, Dominic Perks, to Highland Community College when he was just 17. In his second year, Perks, who is Black, argued with a campus security guard over whether he was properly signed in to eat at the cafeteria, which according to Myers he was. The guard accused Perks of uttering the f-word. That was enough to get Perks expelled the next day.

The teenager called his mother after he was kicked off campus, locked out of his dorm room and stranded five hours from his home in St. Louis.

“It was a horrible feeling,” recalls Myers, emotion rising in her voice. “Because, you know, as parents, we are our children's protectors, we're the advocates. And at that present moment, I couldn't protect him. It still bothers me because I feel like he's always gonna be trying to prove who he is.”

Now Highland Community College itself is under the microscope, struggling to show that it remains a stepping stone for Black student-athletes and not a place where their sports and academic careers go to die.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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