A black high school graduate is suing a recently desegregated Mississippi school district, alleging that she was denied her rightful place as class salutatorian — second to valedictorian — when the honor was given to a white student with a lower grade point average instead.
In 2017, Olecia James transferred to Cleveland Central High, a new school that opened after a federal judge decided that Mississippi’s Cleveland School District was illegally segregating black students and white students in two different schools. The inclusive Cleveland Central combined students from both schools and both sides of town, according to the Washington Post.
By May 2018, James, a black senior, was delivered some distressing news: Her weighted grade point average would be lowered by Cleveland Central, as she had lost “quality points” earned in advanced placement courses she had taken at East Side High School — her former, historically black high school.
So James complained, citing unfair practices and claiming that students from the historically white high school did not have their “quality points” withdrawn. Eventually, her 4.41 grade point average was restored — but when it came time for a salutatorian to be named, the distinction went to a white student with a 4.34 average anyway. James was told her weighted average did not count when it came to salutatorian status.
In a federal suit filed in Mississippi’s Northern District, James alleges she suffered “loss of scholarships” and “humiliation” as a direct result of the discriminatory snub. She is seeking monetary damages, a change in school policy and a retroactive declaration of salutatorian. In the suit, the white student who was named salutatorian in the Cleveland Central 2018 graduating class is referred to only as W.M.
“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,” said the suit, “and in doing so, discriminated against Olecia James, a black female who had earned the position.”
James, who is now 18, has gone on to complete her first year at Mississippi’s Alcorn State University, where she’s studying mass communication. She claims she lost out on an opportunity to attend the University of Mississippi, where she was accepted but denied a scholarship for salutatorians. She says she’s not the only student who transferred from the former East Side High to suffer losses after the grading policy was changed at Cleveland Central.
“I knew what I had worked for,” she told the Washington Post. “I knew what the other East Side students had worked hard for. To see it taken away was heartbreaking.”
James hired attorney Lisa M. Ross to represent her in the suit, which was filed just weeks before the trial date for the discrimination case of Jasmine Shepard, who is also a client of Ross. Shepard is a black student who sued the Mississippi Cleveland School District after she was named “co-valedictorian” at her high school along with a white student who had a lower grade point average.
The Mississippi Cleveland School District is defending itself against both suits after settling a third lawsuit in 2017. The settlement, which was 52 years in the making, resulted in the long-awaited desegregation of Mississippi high schools.