A Black student who graduated last year is suing her former school district in Cleveland, Mississippi, claiming officials named a white classmate with a lower grade-point average salutatorian over her because they “feared white flight.”
Olecia James was in the first graduating class of a newly integrated high school in the district. Previously, the Cleveland School District had historically Black and white schools.
In March 2017, the district was ordered to combine East Side High School, a predominantly Black school, and Cleveland High School, a predominantly white school, to form Cleveland Central.
When it came time for James to graduate from Cleveland Central in May 2018, she was ready to be named the salutatorian — an honor given to the student with the second-best grades. However, two weeks before her commencement ceremony, James learned school officials had lowered her grade point average by reducing the "quality points" she earned from East Side High.
According to the Clarion-Ledger, the district uses "quality points" to measure the rigorousness of certain courses offered at a school.
James’ attorney, Lisa Ross, explained to the Ledger that an “A” grade in a more rigorous class counts for more points than an “A” in an easier class.
James was given a new report with a lower GPA, and a white student who initially had lower scores than her was named salutatorian.
James’ complaint claims the school district has "longstanding, widespread, deliberately indifferent custom, habit, practice and/or policy" of discriminating against Black students.
The suit claims the honor was given to an unnamed white student because the district fears white parents will leave the area if their children aren’t recognized for academic achievements.
In 2016 Ross filed a similar lawsuit against the district on behalf of a Black student who alleged she was forced to share the honor of valedictorian with a white student who had a lower GPA.
Before the school’s integration, district officials said the advanced classes at the historically Black high school were equal to or better than the advanced classes offered at the white school, the lawsuit claims.
However, after the two schools combined, quality points from advanced students at the Black school were never credited.
James’ attorney says this lawsuit is crucial because it helps students understand how their hard work should be equally valued.
"These positions that are set aside for students who work hard and do well, they should be awarded on who does the best," Ross told The Ledger. "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 lawsuit asks the court to award James an unspecified amount in monetary damages, attorneys fees and court costs. It also asks 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.
(Photo: NBC News)