A public high school medical internship program in Buncombe County is under legal scrutiny for excluding white and Asian students from participating in the educational opportunity. The watchdog group WNC Citizens for Equality filed two civil complaints this week with federal agencies over the program’s policies.

The Medical Mentorship Program is run by the Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC) and offers ‘underrepresented, marginalized’ high school seniors interested in pursuing a career in medicine a semester-long shadowing experience through different healthcare facilities in the community. 

To qualify for the program, applicants must be a member of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) or underrepresented Asian communities. The program excludes whites and prevalent Asian groups like Chinese, Indian and Korean ethnicities from applying. While the internship has been offered since 2005, it has slowly grown to include more ethnic backgrounds. It was originally only open to black students, but as the MAHEC website states, it was expanded in 2009 to include Hispanic students, and is now an “inclusive program for all underrepresented students.”

However, according to the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, being “denied admission or segregated in an education program or activity” is an example of a civil rights violation. Buncombe County parents whose children were denied the internship opportunity brought the discriminatory rule to the attention of WNC Citizens for Equality, a legal watchdog located in Asheville. The group filed the civil rights complaints on Monday for discriminating against students based on skin color. 

The first complaint was filed with the US Department of Education against the Buncombe County School District and the Asheville City School District for offering the health internship as a class with 135 hours of honors credit for one semester of participation. The second complaint was filed with the US Department of Health and Human Services against MAHEC, the local health agency that partnered with schools to offer the internship.  

In a press release, the law firm presented the difference between this internship class and other classes in the schools: “the internship class specifically excludes white and Asian students from the educational opportunity. This discrimination is in violation of both federal and state law.”

Attorney Ruth Smith, who is leading the case, referred to two different legal violations in the official complaint documents. The 14th Amendment guarantees all Americans equal protection under the law, and Title VI protects individuals from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in programs that receive federal funds.

MAHEC receives federal funds in various ways including Medicaid, Medicare, and federal grants. Additionally, they receive indirect funds through University of North Carolina system, which funnels federal money to MAHEC for its medical school teaching programs.

“You can’t accept those funds and then turn around and discriminate on the basis of race against people,” Smith told the Carolina Journal. 

With children who attended public high school in North Buncombe, Smith insisted that neither she, the law firm, nor its members are out to punish the offending entities. They believe using race to discriminate is illegal and shouldn’t continue. 

“I would hope that they were just ignorant of the last 70 years of Supreme Court precedent,” she added, referring to the Brown v. Board of Education landmark ruling. “Or they’re willfully violating it. I don’t know which one is worse, that you don’t know the law, or you know the law and you don’t care.”

The HHS and DOE have a responsibility to investigate the complaints filed and remedy any violations. The resolution is usually a straightforward warning that tells the offending entities they must adjust their practices to adhere to the law. If the offending entities change their policies, the case closes. But if the entities fail to fix their alleged violations, a lawsuit could ensue. Smith hopes the internship eligibility requirements are corrected so a lawsuit is not necessary.  

In documents obtained by the Carolina Journal, school officials communicate extensively to determine qualified students for the program. Leslie Council, the Director of Health Careers and Diversity Education at MAHEC, also frequently emails with faculty to promote the opportunity to rising seniors. 

The school districts and MAHEC are currently selecting students for the 2024-2025 school year and are doing so with their racial requirements in place. Council, MAHEC, and the Buncombe County School District did not respond to requests for comment.