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White high school student named salutatorian over black student with better grades, federal lawsuit claims

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/2/2019 Justin Wm. Moyer

a person standing in front of a building: Olecia James © Courtesy Olecia James/Courtesy Olecia James Olecia James

An African American woman filed a federal lawsuit against a recently desegregated Mississippi school district last week, claiming a white student was named salutatorian of their graduating class despite having a lower grade-point average.

The lawsuit comes weeks before a trial involving the same school district in which a black student alleges she was named “co-valedictorian” with a white student, even though the white student had a lower grade-point average.

In 2017, Mississippi’s Cleveland School District desegregated after a federal judge found it was operating an illegal dual system for black and white children. A new school, Cleveland Central High, opened after two other schools — one on the historically white side of town, one on the historically black side of town — combined.

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In May, school officials told Olecia James, a black senior at the new high school, that her weighted grade-point average would be lowered after she lost “quality points” earned in courses taken at the historically black school, according to a federal suit filed in Mississippi’s Northern District.

The suit alleges the points, awarded for more challenging classes, were taken from students at the historically black school, but not from students at the historically white school.

After James objected, the suit alleges, officials said her “quality point average” of 4.41 would be restored, but still named a white male student with a 4.34 average salutatorian.

James “suffered loss of scholarships” and “humiliation” as a result, according to the suit, which seeks monetary damages, a change in school policy and a declaration that James is salutatorian.

“The defendants . . . in their angst to prevent white flight, named W.M., a white male student, as salutatorian of the inaugural class of Cleveland Central High School in 2018, a position he had not earned, and in doing so, discriminated against Olecia James, a black female who had earned the position,” the suit said.

The school district’s superintendent referred questions to attorneys, who declined to comment.

a person standing in front of a tree: Cleveland High School in Cleveland, Miss. © Linda Davidson/The Washington Post Cleveland High School in Cleveland, Miss.

In an interview, James, 18, who recently completed her first year studying mass communication at Alcorn State University, she said was admitted to the University of Mississippi, but lost a scholarship for salutatorians as a result of the change. She said students from East Side High School, Cleveland’s historically black school, had to “make the best” out of their new high school’s grading decisions.

“I knew what I had worked for,” she said. “I knew what the other East Side students had worked hard for. To see it taken away was heartbreaking.”

James’s case was filed weeks before a June trial in the case of Jasmine Shepard, a black student who sued the district in 2017 after she claimed she was named “co-valedictorian” with a white student who had a lower grade-point average.

Lisa M. Ross, who represents James and Shepard, said the school district had created a “false narrative” when it came to racial equity. Because another black student was named valedictorian at Cleveland Central in 2018, the second spot had to go to a white person, she said.

“The only reason he’s No. 2 is that they took away points,” Ross said.

Justin.Moyer@washpost.com

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