The U.S. Justice Department reached a Monday agreement with Highland Community college. The college will work to implement six reform measures. (Getty Images)
TOPEKA — The U.S. Justice Department has ordered a rural northeast Kansas community college to end discriminatory practices and treat Black students fairly.
The investigation into Highland Community College, about 80 miles north of Kansas City, followed allegations that Black students, primarily student-athletes living on campus, were subjected to discrimination.
“No college student should have their educational experience marred or disrupted by discrimination based on their race,” said assistant attorney general Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “Community colleges are an important pathway to four-year institutions and the workforce, and federal law requires that their campuses, programs and activities be equally available to all without regard to race.”
Black students complained that they were targeted for searches and surveillance and disciplined more severely than white students, resulting in higher rates of expulsion and removal from campus housing.
While the federal investigation began in January of 2022, the majority-white college has been accused of racial discrimination for years.
In 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas filed a lawsuit against the school on behalf of four Black students. The 2020 lawsuit estimated that Black students made up less than 6% of the community college’s 3,200 students, though they formed the majority of the school’s student-athletes. According to the lawsuit, 104 out of 111 members of the football team during the 2019 football season were Black.
The lawsuit also claimed then-athletic director Bryan Dorrell was strategizing to reduce the number of Black student-athletes through expulsion, excessive scrutiny, and having coaches recruit white student-athletes over Black potential students.
The lawsuit alleged Dorrell had told coaches to recruit “less Southern kids,” and told the college football coaches to stop recruiting players who had “dreadlocks and wicks,” among other allegations. The college settled the lawsuit by paying $15,000 per student and agreeing to conduct anti-discrimination training.
A different lawsuit filed by three former coaches of the women’s basketball team also alleged college officials, especially Dorrell, wanted to rid the school of Black student-athletes.
The Justice Department announced Monday that its investigation had ended with a settlement agreement, with the college agreeing to improve fairness for all students and do away with discriminatory treatment.
“When educational institutions are making decisions about student discipline, race and ethnicity are never relevant factors,” said Kate E. Brubacher, U.S. attorney for Kansas. “Colleges and universities play a powerful role in shaping the development of young people, so it’s imperative that they help set the standard for creating environments where all students are treated with the same level of respect and fairness.”
The school will follow six steps outlined by the settlement agreement to respond to student complaints. Among other reforms, the school must have security staff go through new training, change housing and disciplinary policies, and make safe and welcoming spaces for Black students, as well as improve procedures for responding to student complaints of racial discrimination.
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