JACKSON, Miss. – When Olecia James graduated last year, she was part of the first class to receive diplomas from a newly integrated high school, created after a district was ordered to desegregate in the Mississippi Delta, according to a federal lawsuit.
Now James is alleging that Cleveland School District officials took away the chance for her to be salutatorian because they “feared white flight.”
James sued the district and school officials in April. The lawsuit claims the honor of salutatorian — which traditionally goes to the graduate with the second-best grades — went to a white student whose score initially appeared to be lower than hers. Later, officials gave James a new grade transcript with a lower score, the lawsuit says.
The school district did not respond to a request for comment.
Attorney Lisa Ross, who represents James, said this lawsuit is important because the playing field should be equal when teaching young people the value of competing with other students.
“These positions that are set aside for students who work hard and do well, they should be awarded on who does the best,” said Ross. “And it should be done without consideration as to whether whites will leave the school district if their kids are not selected for awards.”
It’s not the first lawsuit Ross has filed against the Cleveland school district on behalf of a graduate alleging discrimination. The district is located northwest of Jackson.
A black valedictorian of the class of 2016 sued the district, alleging she was forced to share the honor with a white student who had a lower GPA.
That was not long after a federal judge ruled the school district could not maintain its historically black and white high schools because the plan had illegal vestiges of segregation — more than 60 years after the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education.
At that time the racial makeup of historically white Cleveland High School was almost evenly split between black and white students. In contrast, nearly 100% of the students at the historically black East Side High School were black.
James’ suit claims the school district has “longstanding, widespread, deliberately indifferent custom, habit, practice and/or policy” to discriminate against its black students.
Here’s what the lawsuit claims happened
Cleveland High and East Side High are now no more. Students merged under a new Cleveland Central High School, which held its first classes in August 2017.
Nine months later, the first class of seniors graduated.
According to the lawsuit, two weeks before graduation, James found out that school officials lowered her weighted GPA by reducing the points she earned from the courses she took while she was enrolled at East Side High.
Ross said the district tracks quality point average, which is similar to GPA in the sense that it provides a measure of how well a student’s grades are. Unlike GPA, quality point average takes into account the rigorousness of certain classes.
An A grade in a more rigorous class counts more than an “A” in an easier class, Ross said.
In the following weeks, James’ family members met with school district officials multiple times and they did not receive satisfactory explanations for why the student’s grade script was incorrect, the lawsuit alleges.
On May 14, 2018, James and her grandmother met with the Cleveland School Board. At the meeting, the school board president apologized for the “discrepancies they had made on the grade scripts,” the lawsuit says.
Superintendent Jacqueline Thigpen gave James a new corrected grade script which showed her cumulative weighted quality point average was 4.41, making her the first salutatorian of the newly integrated Cleveland Central High, the lawsuit claims.
Three days later, the high school principal announced that a white student — identified in county documents only by his initials, W.M. — as the salutatorian of the graduating class with a cumulative quality point average of 4.34, court documents say.
The next day, James and her grandmother met with two district officials about a change in her quality point average since the May 14 meeting with the school board, the lawsuit said, and they presented James a new grade script which showed her quality point average as 4.33.
Prior to integration, district officials said the advanced classes at the historically black high school and middle school were equal to or better than the advanced classes offered at the historically white middle and high schools, the lawsuit says.
However, when the schools combined, the officials either took away or never assigned quality points earned by students who were enrolled in the advanced classes program at the historically black schools, the suit alleges.
The suit also claims the district discriminated against James when they named a white student, who had a lower GPA, as the star athlete in 2018.
James is asking for a jury trial. The lawsuit asks for the court to award James an unspecified amount in monetary damages, attorneys fees and court costs. It also asks for the court to order the school district to follow its own policies for selecting honors and to declare James as the salutatorian for Cleveland Central High’s 2018 graduating class.
The suit represents one side of a legal argument. The school district has not yet filed a response to James’ lawsuit.
2016 valedictorian sued school district, alleging discrimination
Jasmine Shepard was Cleveland High’s valedictorian in 2016.
Her lawsuit says that Shepard was the first black valedictorian ever to be selected at Cleveland High.
It was also the first time district officials selected two students to serve as co-valedictorians in the school’s 110-year history, the lawsuit claims. The other valedictorian, a white graduate, had a lower GPA than Shepard, court documents say.
The district, in its response, denies wrongdoing and says both students had the same GPA.
That case is ongoing and is scheduled to go to trial in June.
Contributing: The Associated Press. Follow Alissa Zhu on Twitter: @AlissaZhu
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