Black High School Grad Sues School District For Denying Salutatorian Honor

A Mississippi high school graduate claimed that Cleveland School District officials stole her chance to be salutatorian because they “feared white flight,” according to a federal lawsuit filed in April in US District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi. Olecia James graduated from Cleveland Central, a newly integrated high school in the Mississippi Delta, in 2018. James, who is Black, claimed that school officials named a white student with lower grades salutatorian.

According to the lawsuit, James’ scores initially appeared higher than the white student’s grade. Two weeks before the new school’s first graduation in May 2018, school officials lowered James’ grade point average by reducing the “quality points” she earned in classes at her former school, NBC News reported.

James previously attended East Side High School, Cleveland School District’s “segregated high school” for predominantly Black students. East Side merged with Cleveland High School, which was predominantly white, and formed Cleveland Central. The new school held its first classes in August 2017. The district uses a quality point average to track students’ grades but also takes into account how rigorous classes are, James’ attorney Lisa Ross told the Clarion Ledger. Higher grades from more rigorous courses count more than higher grades in easier courses.

According to the lawsuit, James and her grandmother met with the school board on May 14, 2018 regarding her quality points and lower grade-point average. Superintendent Jacquelyn Thigpen apologized for the “discrepancies they had made on the grade scripts,” the lawsuit stated, according to the Clarion Ledger. The superintendent then gave James a corrected grade script that showed her weighted “quality point average” to be 4.41, which made her the school’s first salutatorian. However, Cleveland Central’s principal announced three days later that a white student, identified by his initials WM, would be salutatorian with a quality point average of 4.34. James and her grandmother met with district officials again the following day, when they were given a new 4.33 quality point average.

Ross told the newspaper that awards, such as the honor of being salutatorian, should be awarded on who does the best, regardless of how white parents will react. “These positions that are set aside for students who work hard and do well, they should be awarded on who does the best,” Ross said. “And it should be done without consideration as to whether whites will leave the school district if their kids are not selected for awards.” The school district has a “longstanding, widespread, deliberately indifferent custom, habit, practice and/or policy” to discriminate against its Black student population, the lawsuit claimed.

Cleveland School District Superintendent Jacquelyn Thigpen did not respond to The North Star’s request for comment and referred questions to the school board’s attorney Arnold Luciano. The attorney at Jacks, Griffith, and Luciano law firm did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The school district has faced similar allegations in the past. A Black valedictorian for the class of 2016 filed a lawsuit against the district, claiming she was forced to share the position with a white student with a lower GPA. Jasmine Shepard was Cleveland High’s first Black valedictorian in the school’s 110-year history. Shepard alleged that had to serve as co-valedictorian with a white student with lower grades. The school district claims the two students held the same GPA, the Clarion Ledger reported.

The latest lawsuit is requesting the school district be ordered to follow its policies when awarding honors and to declare James as the salutatorian for her graduating class. The suit also asks for an unspecified amount in monetary damages, attorneys fees, and court costs. The Cleveland School District has not yet filed a response.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.