Students load a Cleveland School District bus outside of the new Cleveland Central High School.


CLEVELAND — School officials accused of discriminating against an African-American student are denying charges that they took extraordinary steps to have that student share valedictorian honors with a white student.  

A federal lawsuit filed by the student’s parent earlier this year claims that the African-American student was forced to share her valedictorian role with a white student, despite having a higher grade point average.

“[Cleveland School District] had a legitimate, non-discriminatory valedictorian policy which was race neutral and applied in a racially neutral manner,” states a court filing on behalf of defendants Cleveland School District, superintendent Jacquelyn Thigpen and then-Cleveland High School principal Steven Craddock.

Their response says the two students held identical grade point averages (GPA).

Dr. Jacquelyn C. Thigpen, superintendent of the Cleveland School District

But the original lawsuit says that when school officials divided total quality points by total semester credits, the white student’s GPA came in lower.

The decision that the two students were co-valedictorians was announced the day before the 2016 graduation ceremony.

“As a result of the school officials’ unprecedented action of making an African-American student share the valedictorian award with a white student, the defendants discriminated against [the African-American student],” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also contends that prior to 2016, all of Cleveland High School’s valedictorians were white. “African-Americans had only been valedictorians at East Side High School, a school which virtually no whites attended,” reads the lawsuit.

The school district disputed that assertion, stating in its court filing that the district has had “multiple non-white valedictorians prior to 2016.” Along with outlining these defenses, school officials also expressly denied all allegations of wrongdoing claimed in the lawsuit.

This litigation garnered national attention from CNN, the Washington Post and others when the lawsuit was filed.

It came on the heels of a federal desegregation order declaring that Cleveland High School must merge with East Side High School. The school district was under pending desegregation litigation filed in 1955 against the Bolivar County Board of Education.

Cleveland Central High opens new era for school district

Throughout the decades, Cleveland High School grew to be about 60 percent African-American and 40 percent white. East Side High School remained entirely African-American save for one student.

The lawsuit claims that the defendants were “upset by a recent desegregation order” when they chose both students to be co-valedictorians.

Sherry Shepard, who filed the complaint on behalf of her daughter, asked to be awarded an unspecified amount in damages as well as attorney’s fees. She also requested an order forcing the district to adhere to its policy for selecting valedictorians, for her daughter to be declared the sole valedictorian of Cleveland High School’s 2016 graduating class, and for any other necessary relief.

In the complaint, Shepard says that her daughter suffered “humiliation, loss of self-esteem, embarrassment, loss of opportunities, mental anguish, emotional distress, pain and suffering, and other damages to be shown at the trial of this matter.”

Shepard declined to comment, stating that she had been advised by her attorney not to speak on pending litigation.

A message seeking comment was also left with Shepard’s attorney.


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Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.