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Kansas college reaches settlement in lawsuit alleging discrimination against Black athletes

HIGHLAND, Kan. (AP) — A Kansas community college that was accused of trying to reduce the number of Black student-athletes has agreed to a settlement, the U.S. Justice Department announced Monday.

The department said in a news release that the agreement requires Highland Community College to make its disciplinary proceedings fairer, to provide more training and to improve its procedures for responding to student complaints.

“Our student body is the most important part of the Highland Community College experience,” said college president, Deborah Fox, who was named personally in one of the lawsuits filed over the allegations. She added in a statement that “there is always room for improvement.”

The agreement resolves the department's investigation into complaints that Black students were targeted for searches and disciplined more severely than their white peers, resulting in their unfair removal from campus housing or even expulsion, the department said in the release.

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“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.

Former coaches and athletes described horrific treatment in a pair of lawsuits.

The coaches' lawsuit, which was settled this year, alleged that the school intimidated Black student-athletes into leaving and told coaches not to recruit African Americans.

The American Civil Liberties Union alleged in another lawsuit, which also was settled, that Highland expelled Black students for minor or bogus infractions and subjected them to arbitrary searches, surveillance and harassment on campus.

Highland has about 3,200 students and is about 80 miles (130 kilometers) northwest of Kansas City, Missouri. Fewer than 6% of the students are African American, but half or more of the student-athletes, until recently, were Black and came from out of state, one of the lawsuits noted.

Fox, who became the school’s president in March 2019, found herself in the middle of the controversy last year when The Kansas City Star disclosed that she had compared a Black football player to Hitler, whom she called “a great leader.”

Fox made the remarks during a meeting about the alleged harassment of Black student-athletes, during which she questioned a Black football player’s leadership skills and his influence on other Black teammates.

In an email to KCUR, Fox said she was trying to describe “negative leadership” and the short audio clip was taken from a long conversation. She said she had apologized to the students, faculty and college “for my poor choice of words.”