Black Student Passed Over as Salutatorian for White Student With Lower GPA: Lawsuit

A black student claims she was passed over in favor of a white student.
Cleveland High School in Cleveland, Mississippi. Getty

A recently desegregated Mississippi school district has been sued in federal court by a black student who claims she was passed over for a school honor in favor of a white student with a lower grade point average.

The Cleveland School District used to have two high schools: Cleveland High School, historically for white students, and East Side High, which was historically for black students. In 2017, the district combined the two into Cleveland Central High after a judge ruled it could not maintain the historically segregated schools.

Olecia James was part of the first class to graduate from the new school. She contends her weighted grade point average was reduced after the district deducted points for advanced classes she had taken at East Side High, according to the federal suit.

The district subtracted bonus points awarded for advanced classes from students who had attended East Side High, but not from students who had attended Cleveland High, the lawsuit alleges.

James had been the No. 2 student in her class and was slated to be the salutatorian of her graduating class, she claims. But she was bumped to third place in favor of a white male student with 4.34 GPA, she said. Before points were removed from her weighted average, James had a GPA of 4.41, the lawsuit says.

School board attorney Arnold Luciano declined to comment Friday on the suit. 

"Olecia and her grandmother have gone back and forth with the school district, so this is the only way to get the district to talk," attorney Lisa Ross said of her client's lawsuit. "Olecia and her grandmother haven't been able to get a straight answer."

The suit seeks unspecified financial damages and a declaration proclaiming James salutatorian.

The suit claims the impetus behind giving the honor to a white student was to stop "white flight."

Ross also represents Jasmine Shepard, a black student who says she was named co-valedictorian in 2017 with a white student who had a lower GPA. She sued the district that same year. Her case is scheduled for trial next month.

"You need to understand the history and background of this district," Ross said. "It failed to desegregate schools 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education," the landmark Supreme Court case outlawing segregated schools, she said.

"The community is not ready to accept an integrated high school," Ross said.

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