Highland college

The NAACP and the ACLU are looking into claims of unfair treatment toward black students, mainly student athletes, at Highland Community College.

An attorney, working on behalf of the NAACP, has announced his determination Highland Community College is the site of credible accusations of unfairness against black constituents, and that he anticipates a deeper inquiry. The college has denied the accusations.

Martin J. Keenan, retained by the Kansas Legal Intervention Committee of the NAACP, released a statement on Tuesday, Feb. 11, regarding his investigation of HCC racial tensions. Based on a preliminary review, Keenan said, he has concluded that Highland Community College is likely in violation of the U.S. Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act of 1972, better known as Title IX. Keenan’s findings follow up reporting earlier this month that the college is perceived by some black constituents to be not as friendly to African Americans as it should be.

Keenan said that Athletic Director Bryan Dorrel, who has held his position since September 2019, has been credibly accused of unfairly suspending the coaching staff of the Highland Scotties women’s basketball team last December, for reasons that Keenan believes lack validity. In the 2019-2020 season, the women’s basketball team featured a roster of almost entirely black players; Keenan said that in December, the only white starter transferred to another school. On Tuesday, Feb. 18, the college said the suspensions had been ordered by College President Deborah Fox. 

Though Head Coach William “BJ” Smith — a white man with Native American ancestry — has since been restored to his position, Keenan notes that at least two other coaches, who are black, remained suspended as of Tuesday based on — in Keenan’s judgement — no fair cause.

This would constitute a Title IX violation on the basis of unfair actions toward a women’s team, when no such actions have been taken against male athletes or their coaches, Keenan said. However, as Keenan put it, the Title IX matter goes hand in hand with the complaints of racial discord at Highland college.

“The athletic director (Dorrel) has told one or more coaches, ‘I need you to recruit more athletes that the culture of the local community can relate to,’” Keenan said. “One coach asked: ‘What is that supposed to mean?’ The coach was told: ‘You know exactly what I mean.’

In a statement on Thursday, Feb. 13, the college called the statements by Keenan "incorrect." The college referenced how Coach Smith and his assistants were originally suspended amid reports that they allegedly committed some kind of athletic rules violations. In its statement, the college said it considers commentary on the nature of these alleged violations, pending an investigation, to be "inappropriate at this time"; it has released no specifics. 

"HCC asserts these statements [by Keenan] ... seem calculated to turn what began as an investigation regarding potential NJCAA rules violations into a racial issue," the college said. "[President Fox] and Board of Trustees of Highland Community College fully support Dr. Dorrel and regret that he has been wrongfully maligned."

In his statement, Keenan notes that he considers these accusations filed with the NAACP to remain a matter of investigation. He further calls attention to how the college has denied any claim of discriminatory behavior on campus by HCC employees. In January, a spokeswoman told Atchison Globe that it considers the complaints to the NAACP to be inspired by an “absolutely incorrect and unfounded outcry of racism.”

According to Keenan, Dorrel also discouraged Highland collegiate athletics staff from recruiting players who sport certain hairstyles culturally associated with African Americans, including dreadlocks and wicks. HCC President Deborah Fox, who took her position in July 2019, emphatically denied this particular accusation in a recent statement to Atchison Globe.

“Students may wear whatever hairstyle they choose,” she said. “This is not dictated by the college or any college employee. Those statements are false and have no influence on a student’s attendance at Highland Community College.”

However, according to Keenan, the ACLU has opened its own inquiry, separate from the NAACP. Kansas Legal Intervention Committee member Darrell Pope confirmed the veracity of Keenan’s statement on Tuesday, and conferred with the attorney before authorizing the release of the statement amid media reporting on the Highland college controversies.

Keenan said that further information is sought in the Highland college case. Anyone who is able to confirm or deny complaints of racial or related unfairness at the college, he said, is encouraged to contact the NAACP at 410-580-5777.

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