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Sexual Harassment Claims Put Garden City Community College President Under Fire

Josh Harbour
Garden City Community College President, Herbert Swender, listens to a faculty senate report that calls for his resignation over the handling of accusations that a former cheer coach at the school sexually harassed cheerleaders.

The president of Garden City Community College faces growing pressure to resign over a range of sexual harassment issues at the school and a threat to its accreditation.

This week, the college’s faculty senate demanded Herbert Swender step down — citing what it says was a too-slow reaction to accusations that a coach sexually harassed former cheerleaders and directed racist remarks at them. Local residents echoed those sentiments to the school’s board of trustees.

Meanwhile, the community college faces possible suspension of its accreditation.

At the center of criticism directed toward Swender is the handling of complaints against cheer coach Brice Knapp. Faculty members and some people in the Garden City area contend that Swender learned in 2015 that some cheerleaders Knapp had coached said he sexually harassed them.

Other cheerleaders he had coached have come to his defense, but Knapp resigned in March.

Swender and the college’s attorney did not respond to requests for comment.

At a meeting Tuesday, the school’s board of trustees received a packet from the faculty senate criticizing Swender for failing to act on complaints about Knapp. The faculty group said that seeming inaction was cause for the trustees to demand his resignation or fire him.

The board also got a letter at the meeting from more than two dozen self-described “college stakeholders” calling on the board to dump Swender and the school athletic director.

“I would like to know what have you done, what are you implementing, what changes are happening,” local resident Toni Douglass told the board.

Credit Josh Harbour
At a GCCC trustees meeting, former cheerleader Jade Denton shared some of the inappropriate and racist comments made by former GCCC cheer coach Brice Knapp.

Former cheerleader Jade Denton told the board she heard Knapp make comments she found sexually inappropriate while coaching the cheer team.

“My teammate was stretching and doing splits and she said, ‘Look, coach, I got my last split,’ and he replied, ‘Looks like somebody got more flexible in Canada,’ knowing she went with her boyfriend,” Denton said while fighting back tears. “And then he says, ‘I should send all my girls to Canada.’”

Denton said she also heard Knapp use racial slurs toward some of the cheerleaders, including a Hispanic woman, whom Denton said was afraid to perform a jump.

“She was scared to jump over the tallest one, so Brice says, 'Jump over it like your family jumps over the border,’” Denton said.

But several former male and female cheerleaders came to Knapp's defense.

Mercedez Showers, for instance, called him “family,” while others called him a “father figure.”

Former cheerleader Jake Hawkins said Knapp’s door was always open to the cheer team. Knapp sometimes chose his words poorly, Hawkins said, “but he always meant well in his heart.”

Another former cheerleader, Amber Tackett, said she never observed Knapp saying negative things or things that made her feel uncomfortable.

The faculty senate’s packet also accused Swender of inappropriate conduct at the school. It said he belittled, denigrated and harassed “students, employees, volunteers and the community.”

The faculty group said he called two professors “Hot Lips Houlihan” and on several occasions, told employees to come get “birthday spankings.”

Swender and the college’s attorney did not respond to requests for comment.

Swender is also leading a school that in 2017 was placed on two-year accreditation probation by the Higher Learning Commission.

Credit Josh Harbour
Drama Instructor and incoming Faculty Senate President Philip Hoke presents a report claiming inaction by the community college in the handling of sexual harassment accusations and its accreditation process to the college's board of trustees.

Philip Hoke, a drama instructor and incoming faculty senate president, told trustees that the HLC is “watching everything we are doing, they are hearing every report, every letter to the editor, every video on YouTube. .. They will shut us down if we do not clean house.”

The accreditation group’s website says the community college has until Oct. 1 to deliver evidence that it has come in compliance with degree programs, assessments of student learning and other issues. 

Peer reviewers from HLC are scheduled to visit the campus in early November.

Ryan Ruda, vice president of instruction and student services, said the college is working toward satisfying HLC’s requirements.

“A significant amount of work has been done to enhance these processes and develop sustainability measures that ensure that these processes continue as we go forward,” Ruda said. 

In a campus-wide email following the meeting Tuesday, instructors in the welding department stood at odds with the faculty senate and said Swender had helped their department flourish.

“Dr. Swender has always been in our corner as faculty and as a friend,” the email said. “He has our full support.”

Angie Haflich is news director for High Plains Public Radio. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and HPPR covering health, education and politics. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.