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Lawsuit: Northeast Kansas community college allegedly discouraged enrollment of Black student-athletes

Missing Gavel
Posted at 2:21 PM, Feb 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-11 18:12:16-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A lawsuit filed on Feb. 1 alleges Highland Community College (HCC) in Northeast Kansas actively worked to "discourage African American student-athletes from attending" the college.

HCC is located about 80 miles northwest of Kansas City. According to the lawsuit, less than 6% of students attending the school are African American.

The 45-page lawsuit alleges the discriminatory practices have been in place since at least 2019.

It was filed by former employees who claim they were unlawfully fired for opposing the discrimination.

The parties filing suit include former head women's basketball coach B.J. Smith, as well as former assistant women's basketball coaches Bradford Zinn and Jered Ross.

The lawsuit specifically names HCC President Deborah Fox, athletic director Bryan Dorrel and the Board of Trustees, specifically including board member Russell Karn.

The administration allegedly made hiring choices that would discourage African American student-athletes from attending HCC and "make Highland white again," according to the lawsuit.

At one point, Coach Smith was allegedly told that he needed to "start recruiting more players the culture of the community could relate to," and said that the current players "were an embarrassment in our community," the lawsuit states.

It goes on to say that Smith was allegedly discouraged from recruiting African American players, alleging he was asked at one point if "these are really the kind of players we want at Highland?"

The women's basketball coaches were suspended in December 2019 and were allegedly accused of academic dishonesty. It's an allegation that the plaintiffs say the evidence was never presented to prove.

The coaches said they were never given notice of the allegations or what the investigation process would be. They were all eventually fired.

The lawsuit goes on to detail allegations of discrimination within other athletic programs in the school that included harassment of African American students.

Court documents show the plaintiffs are seeking recourse for lack of due process, discrimination on the basis of race, retaliation, conspiracy and failure to protect.

The parties are seeking a jury trial to win compensatory damages, punitive damages and to recover the costs of the suit.

A college spokesperson e-mailed KSHB 41 News a statement Friday afternoon.

"Because of the activity on social media and in other media, the College has been aware of the allegations by Smith, Zenn, and Ross for some time. These individuals have now filed a lawsuit mimicking their social media allegations in the United States District Court for the District of Kansas. The College adamantly denies their allegations. 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.

For example, the lawsuit alleges the College reduced its minority population in what is alleged was a discriminatory manner. Of the sports Highland Community College offered during Coach Smith’s last year at the College, forty-eight percent of the athletes on the roster were African American. Forty-nine percent of the current rostered students, in the same sports now offered as in 2019, are African American.

Students identifying as white make up about thirty percent of the rostered athletes. Athletes make up over fifty percent of the current enrollment on the Highland campus. Of the five locations for the Highland Community College, only the Highland campus has athletics.

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 athletes, and the current coaching staff; and it will give Highland Community College the opportunity to demonstrate how proud the College is of the student athletes that have chosen HCC."