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Black valedictorian suing school district

Mississippi

Carol Ozemhoya | OW Contributor | 5/7/2019, 10:07 a.m.
When Jasmine Shepard graduated from high school in 2016, she and another student were named co-valedictorians.

When Jasmine Shepard graduated from high school in 2016, she and another student were named co-valedictorians. Shepard is Black. And the other student is White. A federal lawsuit filed against the school district alleges that the White student had a lower GPA, reports the Clarion Ledger. Shepard is suing the Cleveland (Mississippi) school district, alleging that in 2017 officials discriminated against her by forcing her to share the honor of valedictorian with the other student. Now almost two years later, the case is scheduled to go to trial in June. On April 26, Olecia James — another former Cleveland student who graduated two years after Shepard — sued the same school district, alleging she was deprived of the honor of salutatorian because officials feared “White flight.” These two lawsuits are aimed at a Mississippi Delta school district of about 3,400 students, which, three years ago, was required by a federal judge to consolidate its historically White and historically Black schools in a desegregations order. Shepard's suit claims she was the first Black student to be selected as valedictorian of Cleveland's historically White Cleveland High School in 2016. Prior to 2017, there were two high schools in Cleveland. Nearly 100 percent of students at the historically Black East Side High were Black. In comparison, the racial makeup at Cleveland High's was nearly evenly split between White and black, with a slightly higher percentage of White students. The lawsuit also alleges prior to 2016, Cleveland High had never chosen two students to serve as co-valedictorians. Shepard alleges the school district and officials discriminated by forcing her to share the honor of valedictorian with another student named Heather Bouse. She also alleges that Bouse was given educational opportunities that were not offered to her. The school district denies Shepard's allegations and says the two co-valedictorians' grades were the same. The district and officials did nothing wrong, says a response filed by the district's attorneys. Superintendent Jacquelyn Thigpen, who is Black, said in a deposition that she was presented a class rank report and saw that the two students' GPAs and quality point averages (another metric of students' grades) were the same. The lawsuit alleges Bouse, however, incorrectly received more than four points for classes that did not qualify as accelerated or advanced courses. The suit also claims Bouse was given the opportunity to take physics online while Shepard was never informed of that possibility. Shepard's GPA was lowered because she ended up taking less rigorous classes instead of the more challenging online courses, the suit says.