Attorneys: Issues persist at GCCC

KORA request presented as evidence of retaliation

Amber Friend Staff writer
Garden City Community College president Herb Swender, center, listens as GCCC Faculty Senate president Phil Hoke expresses concerns about Swender's leadership in May during the Board of Trustee meeting at GCCC. Shown with Swender are GCCC's attorney, Randy Grisell, and Debra Atkinson, Swender's administrative assistant. [TELEGRAM PHOTO]

Attorneys who have been criticizing and challenging Garden City Community College for months came forward Tuesday night at the GCCC Board of Trustees meeting, claiming evidence of past and present instances of sexual harassment, retaliation and Title IX violations.

Shawnee attorney Jean Lamfers and Garden City attorney Bob Lewis represent several clients who have claimed they have had issues with the college this year, including faculty and community members who say college administration retaliated against them and a cheerleader who accused former GCCC cheer coach Brice Knapp of sexual harassment — each of whom the attorneys say are preparing potential litigation against the college.

On Tuesday, both lawyers presented documents to the board. Lewis brought an extensive Kansas Open Records Act request he claimed was evidence of retaliation from former GCCC President Herbert Swender, and Lamfers brought forward an agreement the college made with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights in 2007 following the office’s investigation of a student’s sexual harassment complaint.

Claims of retaliation

Lewis presented a KORA request submitted to the college on May 10, two days, he noted, after the GCCC Faculty Senate presented an extensive report to the Board of Trustees accusing then-GCCC President Swender of bullying, intimidation, sexual harassment, retaliation and otherwise fostering a toxic work environment, and several weeks after community members confronted the board about accusations against Knapp.

The request, compiled by the college’s IT department — then made up of Andy Gough, David Larsen and Andrew Knoll — called for all emails, phone records, text messages, written and digital communications from Jan. 1, 2017, to May 10, 2018, between 20 college personnel and students (named below) and a repeated list of faculty members, staff members, administrators, community members and members of the local media, including The Telegram.

Lewis and Lamfers represented Gough, Larsen and Knoll this summer following their suspensions with pay from the IT department after a reported email breach at the college.

Lewis told the board that he and Lamfers’ sources, who they would not name, have told them that Swender was the only person to access the completed KORA request.

Because students and community members who spoke out against Knapp were included, it was evidence, Lewis said afterward, of retaliation against those who had submitted Title IX complaints and would be used as evidence in he and Lamfers’ cases concerning the college should they decide to litigate.

It was proof Title IX issues are still present at the college, Lewis said. 

“I think it could fairly be described as an enemies list of the then-college president, because in some way or another, each of these individuals or institutions had dared to question his misconduct as president,” Lewis said.

The records request asks for correspondence between individual college employees and students and the following individuals: Bryce Roderick and any other representative of the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference, Chris Parker and any other representative of the National Junior College Athletic Association, then-Vice President of Instruction and Student Services Ryan Ruda, Dean of Student Services Colin Lamb, Dean of Academics Philip Terpstra, then-Dean of Institutional Effectiveness Jacque Messinger, Disability Services & Compliance Coordinator Melanie Hands, Trustee Leonard Hitz, theater instructor Phil Hoke, social science instructor Tammy Hutcheson, reading instructor Holly Chandler, social science instructor Winsom Lamb, Director of Enrollment Management Tammy Tabor, dance coach Sophia Hernandez, English instructor and then-Faculty Senate President Sheena Hernandez, English instructor Samantha Sanger, social science instructor Leonard Rodenbur, Director of Bands Casey Hands, former GCCC football coach and Athletic Director Bob Larson, GCCC Endowment Association Director Jeremy Gigot, and then-secretary of the GCCC Endowment Association Board of Directors Aaron Kucharik. Others listed included community members Toni Douglass, Mark Douglass, Zach Worf and Barbara Larson, legal advisor La Rae Munk, State Sen. John Doll, former KSN reporter Santiago Kahn, Telegram reporters Levi Burnfin and Amber Friend, then-Telegram Editor-Publisher Dena Sattler, then and former GCCC cheerleaders Elizabeth Everett, Yulissa Hernandez and Mercedez Showers and then-GCCC volleyball player Shaney Tiumalu.

The records request also asked for all emails connected to listed college personnel and students’ accounts that related to the Higher Learning Commission or in any way discussed the GCCC cheer or dance teams, coaches or members, and all documentation of the Faculty Senate, both relating to and outside of meetings.

When reached by phone Wednesday, Swender declined comment.

Sexual harassment claims and Title IX

While Lewis looked to the recent past, Lamfers turned the clock back over a decade. 

According to a report from the OCR Lamfers provided to the board, the office evaluated a student’s claim that two male track coaches sexually harassed her in early 2005 with lewd and suggestive comments and inappropriate touching. The student claimed GCCC did not formally respond to the accusations.

The OCR found that the student reported the incident to several college officials, including the director of human resources and a counselor from the Family Crisis Center. According to the report, The HR director told the OCR that she interviewed female coaches and attempted to interview members of the track team, but had trouble contacting the students.

The HR director was unable to provide a written report of the investigation or documentation of her attempted contacts, save some handwritten notes, according to the OCR report. The student said she was never notified of the results of the college’s investigation, but acknowledged that the harassment stopped after she reported it to the college, according to the OCR report.

Because of the college’s lack of documentation, set sexual harassment or discrimination response procedures and designated Title IX coordinator, GCCC was found to not be compliant with Title IX at the time and entered into an agreement with the OCR, according to the report.

Through the agreement, which took effect from June to October 2007 and was signed by former GCCC President Carol Ballantyne, the college promised to designate a Title IX coordinator, adopt and publish a student grievance procedure — including a prompt, impartial investigation, notice of the outcome to the involved parties and steps to prevent the reported discrimination in the future — a detailed recordkeeping procedure for complaints to be kept at least three years and Title IX training to faculty and administrators, according to the report.

On paper, GCCC has met at least three of the agreement’s four stipulations. The college’s posted policies and procedures include a detailed grievance and investigation procedure for those facing discrimination or harassment, though the separate, shorter sexual harassment policy simply says complaints “will be promptly investigated and resolved.”

The college’s website lists Director of Enrollment Management Tammy Tabor as the school’s Title IX coordinator, and Director of Public Relations Ashley Salazar said GCCC provided Title IX training at its August in-service, which was mandatory for full-time employees and available to all personnel. She said all complaints are filed through a recordkeeping software that allows the college to store them "in perpetuity."

But Lamfers argued to the board that the issues surrounding the 2005 incident and 2007 agreement run parallel to some GCCC cheerleaders’ accusations of Knapp more than 10 years later. The college’s responses to the students’ complaints had not been prompt or impartial and came with little to no follow-up, she said. Complaints submitted in 2015 were missing by 2017 and investigations sat unresolved, she said.

As far as Lamfers is concerned, the issues noted in the OCR report persisted.

“Sadly, in the 11 years since that time this agreement was signed by the college, there has been no progress in Title IX compliance. And the public needs to know that two members of today’s board were on that board in 2007, and they and their counsel can’t plead ignorance to the college’s documented history of Title IX noncompliance,” Lamfers told the board, referring to current Trustees Terri Worf and Merilyn Douglass.

Steps to compliance

Trustees Chairman Steve Martinez said after the meeting that the board will take into consideration all of the public comments made Tuesday.

Regarding the KORA request, Martinez said he would meet with Interim GCCC President Ruda about next steps and to see what college staff and administrators had the right to do in regards to requesting records.

“We’re going to take those into consideration, everybody’s public comments. A lot of the stuff they mentioned, those people are no longer here. So it’s just going to be more of making sure we improve in the future. Hopefully, none of those incidents ever come up again, but if they do, hopefully we handle them in a more transparent fashion,” Martinez said.

During the meeting, the board unanimously approved an addition to its General Executive Restraints stating “The President shall not fail to maintain compliance of policies regarding sexual misconduct by Garden City Community College employees and/or students.”

The change ideally would strengthen the board’s commitment to preventing sexual misconduct, said Trustee Terri Worf. She said she believed the board had been compliant, but this would hold all involved with the college to a higher standard. Trustee Leonard Hitz said it just needed to be enforced.

Ruda said after the meeting he was not familiar with either the KORA request or the OCR report presented to the board but would review them.

“I feel confident in how it is we’re handling and addressing (Title IX). We have a (Human Resources) director that will be starting here in another month. We have a good understanding and handle on how it is our processes are currently, and we’ll work with them to be able to ensure that that continues,” Ruda said.

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.