‘I was so heartbroken’: African American student stripped of salutatorian honor lost Ole Miss scholarship opportunity, lawyer says

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Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

Olecia James, former East Side High student, was crowned the 2017 Cleveland Central Homecoming queen.

CLEVELAND – Tears ran down Olecia James’ face when she did not hear her name called as the Class of 2018’s salutatorian for the newly consolidated Cleveland Central High School, she said.

“I was so heartbroken. I was hurt. I had a blank stare at one moment and I just cried,” she said. “I wouldn’t know how it felt because it wasn’t mine to have, but when I knew what I had and should’ve had, it hurt. It just hurt a different way.”

Cleveland Central High wasn’t where the Cleveland native dreamed of graduating, but she made the most of it. She became a tennis player, basketball player, and homecoming queen all while working toward achieving salutatorian.

But a recent federal lawsuit filed on Friday against the Cleveland School District alleges the district – which merged East Side High School and Cleveland High School in 2017 under a desegregation order – denied James salutatorian for the fear of white flight.

Now, James’ attorney, Lisa Ross, says she missed out on an opportunity to attend Ole Miss because she was not named salutatorian.

“If she would’ve had the salutatorian position, she would’ve been at Ole Miss where she was accepted and got a scholarship for salutatorian,” said Ross. “But she lost an opportunity to receive a scholarship because of what (the district) did. They went back on their word.”

Legal counsel representing Cleveland School District said “unfortunately, at this time … (we’re) not in a position to comment on the new lawsuit.”

James is suing the district’s five-member school board, superintendent, assistant superintendent and former East Side High principal in their official and individual capacities.

The lawsuit alleges:

• Two weeks before graduation, James found out school officials lowered her grade point average (GPA) by reducing the quality points she earned from courses she had taken under the International Baccalaureate (IB) program at the former East Side High School

• James’ family members, including her grandmother and father, met with school officials on more than three separate occasions to get answers on why the quality points were inaccurate on the grade scripts, but school leaders did not have an explanation or resolve the issue

• At a May 14 board meeting, the board members and school officials apologized to James. Jacqueline Thigpen, the superintendent who’s retiring this June, presented her with a new grade script, showing that her cumulative weighted quality point average (QPA) was 4.41

Olecia James

Olecia James snaps photos during Cleveland Central High’s 2018 graduation

However, at the May 17 graduation, a white male student, whose cumulative QPA was a 4.34, was announced as the salutatorian, the suit says.

The next day at a school board meeting, James and her grandmother learned her QPA dropped to 4.33, and she did not receive an explanation from Cleveland school leaders or board members, the suit alleges.

Quality points matter because a student who is in accelerated or advanced courses receive higher quality points than students who are not enrolled in those courses, said Ross.

For example, if a student makes an “A” in a regular class, they receive 4 points whereas a student in an accelerated class gets 5 points and 6 points for an advanced class, according to the district’s 2017-2018 student policy handbook.

“You told them they were gonna get these points. They took the classes, worked hard and got the grade, and then you tell them this isn’t gonna count or tell them why,” said Ross.

Although she’s been retired from the district since 2016, Lucille Holmes, a former East Side High counselor, noted she’s unaware of what’s going on in the district, but said James came to her when she learned of the confusion with her grades.

“Olecia came to me when they changed the weight of her classes. From my understanding, if you change the weight, it would apply to the children who currently take the classes or children coming into the class,” said Holmes.

“I was Olecia’s counselor ninth and 10th grade. (The students) had the same classes. They had advanced classes. They stayed together all of the time all day long. … I think my children should get what’s due to them.”

The plaintiff seeks an unspecified amount in monetary damages including attorney fees and litigation; they also believe James should be named salutatorian of her class.

A second discrimination lawsuit  

This isn’t the first time an African American graduate of Cleveland School District has alleged academic accolades lost because of racial discrimination.

In June 2017, Jasmine Shepard filed a lawsuit alleging that she was forced to share her valedictorian honor with a white student, despite Shepard having a higher GPA.

Attorneys representing district officials disputed the claims, writing in court filings that the two students held identical GPAs and that “[Cleveland School District] had a legitimate, non-discriminatory valedictorian policy which was race neutral and applied in a racially neutral manner.”

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

That case is still pending and is currently headed for trial.

The suit came at a particularly tumultuous time in the community – news of the desegregation order was still fresh and plans for what a consolidated high school would look like were uncertain.

National media descended upon the town, writing about feared white flight and forced desegregation.

A year-long Mississippi Today reporting endeavor sought to hear from students about the consolidation, finding that the issue was more nuanced and complicated than portrayed.

Many students at both of the schools didn’t want to consolidate because of family allegiances to their alma mater. Once the schools did consolidate, many East Side students felt like their school’s traditions and culture were lost in a way that wasn’t true for former Cleveland High students.

“Overall, it wasn’t a year I thoroughly enjoyed … As a class, as students, as peers, we were fine. I think the community’s voice could’ve stayed out of it more. If they would’ve stayed out it and let us have our own traditions, the year would’ve been a lot smoother,” said James.

Other students never liked being separated and welcomed the merger.

Meanwhile, the district’s white student population has, in fact, steadily dropped about 1 percent per year since 2013. In 2017 – the year of the consolidation – it dropped by 3 percent. Where 30 percent of the school district in 2013 was white, the white population is now at 23 percent.

Olecia James

Olecia James poses with an Instagram frame at Alcorn State University

“The law can make you consolidate the school, but the law can’t make you change your heart about how you feel about a group of people,” said community member Edward Duvall. “We are one city. There’s two different cultures, but we need to try to work together as much and as best as we can.”

Although she didn’t get to graduate from East Side or attend her first choice of college, James said she’s still choosing to make the best of her situation.

Instead of pursuing a law degree at Ole Miss, she decided to attend Alcorn State University majoring in mass communications. She ended her freshman year with a 4.0 GPA, Freshman of The Year, a presidential scholar, the Sports Editor of The Campus Chronicle and a ROTC Cadet.

“I was sad but at the moment it was all about resilience and controlling what you can control,” she said. “I got a lot of doors opened for me … and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for me at Alcorn.”