School officials in Mississippi named a white student the salutatorian of a recently integrated high school over a black student with better grades “to prevent white flight,” according to a new federal lawsuit.
Olecia James, who is African American, says she earned a higher cumulative quality point average – which takes into account a student’s grade point average and the points awarded for the rigor of the courses they take – than the white salutatorian.
But, the lawsuit alleges, Cleveland School District officials named a white student with a lower average the first salutatorian of Cleveland Central High School’s inaugural graduating class in 2018 – discriminating against her in violation of the 14th Amendment.
Cleveland Central High School was created in 2017 after the Mississippi Delta district settled a 52-year-old lawsuit demanding that it desegregate its schools. The settlement consolidated the predominantly black East Side High and the racially mixed Cleveland High.
The lawsuit filed in late April against the Cleveland School District and several administrators claims that the choice of salutatorian was driven by anxieties about the consolidation. “The defendants, in light of the newly formed consolidated Cleveland Central High School and 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 lawsuit said.
Arnold Luciano, the attorney for the school district and school board, declined to comment Thursday.
The suit seeks unspecified monetary damages and requests that James be publicly named the salutatorian of her graduating class.
What the lawsuit alleges
Two weeks before graduation in May 2018, James learned that school officials had lowered her weighted grade point average by decreasing the quality points she earned from her courses at East Side High, which closed in 2016, the lawsuit said.
Her grandmother and father met with school officials, including Superintendent Jacquelyn Thigpen, to resolve the issue.
James’ grandmother and father told Cleveland Central’s principal Randy Grierson that her quality points were incorrect on her district transcript during one meeting, the lawsuit said.
In a subsequent meeting, School Board President George L. Evans “apologized for the discrepancies they had made” on James’ transcripts, the lawsuit said.
A new transcript, which listed James’ cumulative weighted quality point average as 4.41, was presented at a May 14 school board meeting. That change made her the first salutatorian of the newly integrated high school, the lawsuit said.
But three days later, Grierson, who is white, announced that the white male student was the salutatorian, the lawsuit said. That student had a cumulative quality point average of 4.34, according to the lawsuit.
When James’ father and grandmother protested, school officials gave them another transcript that listed James’ quality point average as 4.33, which was lower than the student who was named salutatorian, the lawsuit said.
CNN has reached out to Grierson, Evans and Thigpen for comment.
The lawsuit also questions the quality of the education at the segregated black schools and the consequences of consolidation after the federal settlement.
The district “failed to provide equitable educational opportunities” to students at East Side High and at D.M. Smith Middle School, a segregated black school James also attended, the lawsuit said.
The district “took away and/or never assigned quality points” earned by students in the International Baccalaureate program at those schools after the consolidation, the lawsuit alleges.
The suit also claims the district discriminated against James when they named a white student with a lower GPA as the star athlete in 2018.
A 2017 lawsuit made similar claims
For decades, the school district had fought the 1965 desegregation lawsuit, filed 11 years after the historic 1954 US Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, which declared school segregation unconstitutional.
Speaking to CNN in 2016, Jamie Jacks, then the attorney for the Cleveland school district, said the district had responded to the federal demands by establishing neighborhood schools and allowing students to pick which school they wanted to attend.
Several months after the 2017 settlement, an earlier federal lawsuit claimed the 2016 valedictorian of Cleveland High, who is black, was forced to share the top honor of the graduating class with a white student who had a lower grade-point average.
Sherry Shepard said her daughter, Jasmine Shepard, was the first black valedictorian in Cleveland High School’s 110-year history.
In a statement then, Jacks said the district “has a racially neutral policy regarding the valedictorian honor.”
“The policy is when there is a grade point average tie between two or more students, the students share the valedictorian honor,” the statement said.
CNN’s Eliott C. McLaughlin, Tina Burnside and Jamiel Lynch contributed to this report.