Black Student Forced to Share Valedictorian Status with White Student, Says Lawsuit

Jasmine Shepard
Jasmine Shepard (Facebook via DiversityInc)

It’s 2017 and Cleveland School District in Mississippi will finally desegregate its racially divided high schools and middle schools.

But the school district is now facing a federal lawsuit filed by a Black woman who claims her daughter was forced to share “co-valedictorian” status with a white student who had a lower grade point average.

In the lawsuit filed last week, Sherry Shepard alleges that her daughter, Jasmine, had to unethically share the 2016 Cleveland High School valedictorian honors.

“Prior to 2016, all of Cleveland High School’s valedictorians were white,” the lawsuit states.

Shepard is the first Black valedictorian in Cleveland High’s 110-year history, and the defendants were “upset by a recent desegregation order” and selected “H.B.,” a white-female student, and Shepard as “co-valedictorians,” the document states. “Prior to 2016, Cleveland High School had never selected co-valedictorians.”

The lawsuit targets the district, Cleveland High’s principal and the superintendent.

Cleveland is located in Bolivar County, Miss., in the heart of the Mississippi Delta region. According to Census.gov, more than 12,000 people reside in the city, and the population is 47.5 percent white, 50.2 percent Black, 1.5 percent Latino, 1 percent Asian and less than 1 percent American Indian.

After decades of legal battles and failed integration initiatives, in May 2016 District Judge for the Northern District of Mississippi Debra Brown ordered Cleveland to desegregate its high schools and middle schools.

Brown, sworn into office in December 2013, is the first African American woman to serve as a federal district judge in the state.

In the past, rather than helping to integrate the district’s schools, attendance zones that fell along racial lines were created. The Cleveland school board initially opposed Brown’s ruling but dropped an appeal to the desegregation order in January.

A settlement was finalized in March, creating a single middle school on the historically Black East Side High campus, and 9th through 12th graders will attend a single high school on the historically white Cleveland High campus. The merger will begin in the 2017-2018 school year.

The Atlantic reported in March that all but two of East Side High’s 377 students were Black.

In the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling May 17, 1954 declaring “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The decision helped break the practice of state-sponsored segregation. But, as of 2015, almost 180 U.S. school districts, 44 of them in Mississippi, were involved in active desegregation cases.

During the time period that the school board contested Brown’s ruling, Shepard created a petition on Change.org discussing her daughter’s co-valedictorian status:

“On May 19th, one day before graduation, my daughter Jasmine was named the co-valedictorian of the Cleveland High School Class of 2016, the traditional ‘white school,’ along with a white student.

“The valedictorian is a meritorious distinction granted to the student with the highest Grade Point Average (GPA). A shroud of secrecy and lack of transparency caused pause for me, and should for anyone, given the district’s longstanding history.

“I was met with resistance from the school and district administration when I attempted to have my concerns addressed surrounding the ‘co’ classification. It is my belief that the white student has a lower GPA than my daughter Jasmine.

“I feel that my daughter was forced to share the honor she earned outright, in spite of the dual-system obstacles causing her to work three times as hard, because the district prefers and caters to white students.”

Shepard said that Jasmine is the youngest of four daughters, and that she has engaged in their education process “knowing that my daughters’ success in school was dependent upon my advocating on their behalf in a school system set up to stifle their growth and development.”

Jamie Jacks, an attorney for the Cleveland School District, said that Shepard and H.B. “had identical grade point averages.”

“As such, under school board policy, they were both named valedictorian of their graduating class,” Jacks wrote in an email to the Washington Post. “The district’s policy is racially neutral and fair to students.”

The district plans to file a motion to dismiss the “frivolous” suit.

Sherry Shepard told the Post that it was easy to calculate the students’ grade point averages because the community is so small.

“These children have been attending school with each other since middle school,” she said. “We know the schedule, we know what they take, and we have a good idea where the discrepancy lies.”

Shepard’s lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages.

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