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A community college in Kansas is at the center of lawsuits alleging racism

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In rural Kansas, lawsuits alleging racial hostility are sending a community college into upheaval. As Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, the situation boiled over recently when the president of the college compared a Black football player to Hitler.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Highland, Kan., is a town of 1,000 surrounded by rolling cornfields in the northeast corner of the state - one gas station, no stoplights. But the student body at Highland Community College is diverse thanks to athletes here on scholarship like Aiden Moore from Louisville, Ky.

AIDEN MOORE: It was really my last chance. You know, I had interest of big-time schools, but I just didn't have the grades.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What's up?

MOORE: What's up? How's it going?

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Not bad, man.

MORRIS: After class, students pile into Moore's dorm room. All of them are Black, all here to play football. But many have just been cut from the team. KeJuan Carson from Auburn, Ala., says it happened to him after just asking permission to skip one practice to finish an English paper.

KEJUAN CARSON: And I thought everything was cool. But later on that day, that's when people started telling me I got kicked off the team.

MORRIS: B.J. Smith, former Highland women's basketball coach, says sudden severe punishment for Black athletes started in 2019. That's when Highland hired a new president and a new athletic director who Smith says immediately laid down the law.

B J SMITH: His exact words were, I needed to recruit more kids the culture of our community could relate to. I said, I honestly don't know what you mean. What are you saying? And he very aggressively said, you know exactly what I'm saying.

MORRIS: From then on, Smith alleges the school has looked for excuses to punish Black players. Smith lost his job in 2020 and recently sued the school along with two assistant coaches, alleging a sustained attack on Black students. Highland President Deborah Fox issued a statement strongly denying the allegations and asserting that almost half the student athletes at Highland are Black, same as when Smith left almost two years ago.

No one representing the school would comment for this story. But Ryan Kuhnert, a 2009 Highland graduate, says the school values diversity.

RYAN KUHNERT: It was the most Black people I'd ever encountered in my life, being from a small farm town. And it was a great learning experience for me.

MORRIS: At the one restaurant in town, farmer Jerry Blevins says Highland College is just trying to strengthen its ties to the community.

JERRY BLEVINS: 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.

MORRIS: But race relations is a very touchy subject here, and as Blevins is talking, another man walks over and motions to my microphone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Actually, the best thing you do to put that [expletive] away and get in your [expletive] car and go down the road.

MORRIS: Tension spiked when a recording surfaced with Highland College President Deborah Fox likening a Black football player to Hitler, who she called, quote, "a great leader." Fox says she meant that the player was misdirecting his own considerable leadership abilities. She apologized for the horrible analogy, but damage was done.

ANN MYERS: That was a bad, bad call. I felt disgusted as a human being.

MORRIS: That's Ann Myers, who sent her son Dominic Perks to Highland College when he was just 17. In his second year, Perks argued with a campus security guard. He was expelled the next day. The teenager called his mother, suddenly kicked off campus, locked out of his dorm and stranded five hours from his home in St. Louis.

MYERS: It still bothers me. At that present moment, I couldn't protect him.

MORRIS: Myers says Highland Community College dealt her son a serious setback. Now the school itself is under close scrutiny and struggling to show that it's a stepping stone for Black student athletes, not a place where their sports and academic careers go to die.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Highland, Kan.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "CIRRUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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