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A small Kansas community college tried to get rid of its Black student-athletes, lawsuit charges

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.’”

The president of Highland Community College compared a Black football player to Hitler, whom she praised as “a great leader.”

An explosive lawsuit alleging a small Kansas community college sought to reduce the number of its African American student-athletes follows disclosures that the president of the school compared a Black football player to Hitler, whom she praised as “a great leader.”

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Kansas City, Kansas, last week, says that Highland Community College in northeast Kansas conducted a concerted campaign to discourage African Americans from attending the school, intimidated Black student-athletes into leaving and told its coaching staff to refrain from recruiting African Americans.

“The HCC administration acted in a concerted fashion to discriminate against Black student-athletes, and when challenged by coaches trying to do the right thing, reacted by smearing the reputations of those coaches, depriving them both of due process and future work possibilities,” William Odle, the lawyer representing the three plaintiff coaches, told KCUR.

The plaintiffs — B.J. Smith, the former women’s basketball head coach; Bradford Zinn, a former assistant coach; and Jered Ross, also a former assistant coach — are suing HCC; its president, Deborah Fox; its athletic director, Bryan Dorrel; and a member of its board of trustees, Russell Karn.

The suit says the defendants worked to transform HCC into “a racially homogenous campus with fewer African American athletes” and to “make Highland white again.”

“The Board selected both Fox and Dorrel despite their glaring lack of qualification for their positions because they enthusiastically agreed to execute the racially discriminatory policies alleged here by aggressively retaliating against coaches, including Plaintiffs, who resisted the administration,” the lawsuit alleges.

HCC has denied the allegations.

In a phone interview with KCUR, Smith, who is white, said that what happened at HCC “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.’”

Smith said that shortly after Dorrel became athletic director, “he told me I had to recruit more players the culture of our community could relate to. And I actually said, ‘I don’t think I understand what you mean.’ And he very aggressively said, ‘You know exactly what I mean.’"

“And that’s when I went, okay, hold on. I think they want to change the color of our school. And I don’t mean the colors on the uniform.”

Smith became head coach of the women’s basketball team, known as the Scotties, in 2011. Before his arrival, the team had not had a winning season in over 15 years. In 2017-2018 they compiled a 35-1 record, in 2018-2019 they went 24-5 and in 2019-2020 they went 21-3 before the COVID-19 pandemic cut the season short. Smith, according to the lawsuit, is the winningest coach in the program’s history, with a 228-35 record overall.

He also graduated 100% of his players, some of whom went on to play at NCAA Division I schools such as Kansas, Oklahoma and Memphis, the lawsuit says.

Campus community

HCC has about 3,200 students. Fewer than 6% are African American, according to the lawsuit. But half or more of the student-athletes at HCC, at least until recently, were African American, most of them recruited from out of state.

Fox, HCC's president, was formerly a director of business operations in Independence, Kansas, and before that a vice president of finance and operations at HCC. She was hired as president in March 2019 after her predecessor of 38 years retired. The lawsuit says she circumvented the search committee to hire Dorrel, her friend, as athletic director.

An unsigned Feb. 8 editorial in The Kansas City Star called for Fox to resign or be fired after she told a former assistant football coach in October that Hitler was “a great leader.”

The editorial was accompanied by a half-minute-long audio clip during which Fox is heard to say: “You know leadership, I mean for certain people that emerge as leaders, good or bad. You know, even though we don’t like it, Hitler was a great leader. I mean, I’m not saying … I don’t, to emulate in any way, but he somehow, even for evil, moved and were able to do these things, and, you know, it’s terrifying. But that’s what can happen when leadership isn’t acknowledged and goes untapped or undirected.”

According to The Star’s editorial, Fox made the remarks during a meeting about the alleged harassment of Black student-athletes. She reportedly had questioned a Black football player’s leadership skills and his influence on other Black teammates.

Asked to explain her remarks, Fox told KCUR in an email that she had apologized to the students, faculty and college “for my poor choice of words.”

“In trying to describe negative leadership in a lengthy conversation lasting over an hour, I used a horrible description,” she said. “We were discussing our responsibility as educators to students in developing leaders in a positive way and steer clear of reinforcing negative leadership. I regret that it has affected the college, its students, and staff. I am deeply sorry to the college and its community.”

A short brick wall holds a sign that reads "Highland Community College" on it. Behind it is a brick building with a metal roof. A person is walking toward it on a sidewalk.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Ben Allen Field House is home to the Highland Community College volleyball and basketball teams.

In a separate email addressing the allegations in the lawsuit, she said HCC “adamantly denies” them.

“Plaintiff Smith, Zenn and Ross’s lawsuit in federal court paves the way for Highland Community College to explain the circumstances surrounding the departure of Smith, Zenn, and Ross; to explain the diversity of the student body, the student athletes, and the coaching staff; and it will give Highland the opportunity to demonstrate how proud the College is of the student athletes that have chosen Highland Community College,” Fox said.

Fox said the college had been aware of the plaintiffs’ allegations “for some time” because of activity on social media.

“Unlike social media comments and postings, the United States District Court for the District of Kansas provides a procedure in which Highland Community College can ‘set the record straight’ regarding their allegations,” she said.

Dorrel, the athletic director, did not respond to a request for comment. Karn, the board of trustees member, declined to comment.

Dorrel previously was an athletic trainer for Northwest Missouri State University’s football team, where his brother was head coach, according to the lawsuit. It says he had been unemployed “for some period” before Fox tapped him to be athletic director. His bio on Highland’s website says he completed a Ph.D. in athletic training from Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions in 2015.

Karn was responsible for hiring Fox, according to the lawsuit, and falsely accused Smith of acquiring a car for a onetime player from a stolen car syndicate. The suit says Karn made that accusation to members of the community “with malicious intent” and that it “constituted defamation per se under Kansas law.”

Past allegations

The lawsuit is not the first time HCC has been accused of pressuring its coaches to recruit more white athletes and singling out Black students for heightened scrutiny.

In March 2020, the ACLU of Kansas filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of four Black students alleging HCC instituted a plan in late 2019 to reduce the number of its Black students. Like the lawsuit filed last week, it alleged that the college expelled Black students for minor or bogus infractions and singled them out for arbitrary searches, surveillance and harassment in their dorms and elsewhere on campus.

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.

Sharon Brett, legal director of the ACLU of Kansas, said in an email that the allegations in the new lawsuit were “concerning, especially allegations that HCC is not following the terms of the settlement agreement it reached with the ACLU in prior litigation. We will continue to follow the case.”

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
It was at Ben Allen Field House at Highland Community College, home to the Scotties volleyball and basketball teams, that former coach B.J. Smith led the women's basketball team to its winning seasons.

HCC suspended Smith, Zinn and Ross in December 2020, accusing them of academic misconduct, including doing homework for the students. No such violations were ever found by the National Junior College Athletic Association (NCJAA).

“One of the amazing things to me is they did an investigation on academics and literally never interviewed one student,” Smith said. “Even if you’re trying to perpetrate a lie, at least put on the façade of something.”

Unlike the NCAA, Odle, the coaches' attorney, said the NJCAA has no enforcement staff and relies on member schools to self-police bylaw violations.

“Critically, an accused coach has zero recourse to challenge the decision,” Odle said. “Only the institution can appeal. If used in bad faith, this process gives an institution perfect pretextual grounds to threaten discipline or termination to silence dissent. That’s what HCC tried to do here.”

Fox fired Zinn and Ross in March 2020 after telling them HCC was not renewing their contracts and giving them the opportunity to resign first. Zinn and Ross are Black.

That same month, Smith complained to the NAACP about possible Title IX violations at Highland. The Kansas City Star reported on the complaint, which prompted HCC to ask a lawyer at the Kansas City law firm of Husch Blackwell to investigate. The lawyer, Demetrius Peterson, found no Title IX violations.

Peterson did not return calls seeking comment.

Fox sought Smith’s resignation sometime in mid-2020. He refused and HCC declined to renew his contract.

“I was never given a reason why my contract was not renewed,” Smith said.

Smith told KCUR that he’s been unable to find a job since then.

“I’ve applied for probably every women’s basketball coaching position at a variety of levels that’s been out there,” he said.

“You know, anytime you’re accused, there’s a couple of things in coaching that you just cannot do that are mortal sins, and cheating is one of them,” Smith said. "And we went through the whole scandal at Highland of the false charges and we really never had a chance to have a voice, we've never spoken up. And in lieu of the truth, people believe the rumors that were out there. And I know that's a big part of it.”

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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