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Kansas community college agrees to address campus racism after federal investigation

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.

Highland Community College in rural northeast Kansas will take steps to address alleged racial discrimination and harassment under an agreement announced Monday with the U.S. Department of Justice.

In sports, Highland Community College has traditionally punched above its weight. It’s a tiny school in a tiny town about 80 miles northwest of Kansas City, with surprisingly good football and basketball teams that relied heavily on recruiting Black student athletes from around the country.

By some accounts, that winning strategy came under new scrutiny when Deborah Fox took over as Highland president in 2019.

B.J. Smith, a former women’s basketball coach for the college, said he was ordered to focus on recruiting white athletes before he was fired for refusing to comply.

Highland’s winning football coach resigned the same year.

In 2020, the ACLU of Kansas sued the school on behalf of four Black students alleging racial discrimination. Highland settled that lawsuit, paying each of the students $15,000 and pledging to conduct anti-discrimination training for employees.

Racial tension at the school persisted, and in 2022 a recordingsurfaced with Fox comparing a Black student athlete to Hitler, someone she characterized as a “great leader” who misused his talent.

The Justice Department launched an investigation of Highland early last year after Black students there reported being picked on by coaches and harassed by campus police. Some said they were ultimately cut from teams, locked out of their dorm rooms and expelled, primarily for being Black.

“No college student should have their educational experience marred or disrupted by discrimination based on race,” Kristen Clark, assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.

Highland Community College didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment for this story.

The Justice Department agreement spells out half a dozen steps the school must take to make school discipline and campus life more equitable. The school has agreed to change policies on discipline and housing and racial harassment, retrain security staff, and take steps to make campus and student activities more welcoming for Black students.

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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