Olecia James, left, and Jasmine Shepard.

Recently, Olecia James, class of 2018 Cleveland Central High School, and Jasmine Shepard, class of 2016 Cleveland High School, talked to a group of educators, parents and students from Newark, New Jersey, during a panel discussion at Homestretch Baptist Church in Cleveland, Mississippi.

The conversation dove into James’ and Shepard’s experiences in the Cleveland School District, which they have both filed suit against alleging systemic racism and inequality. Both are now in court, fighting the district to regain academic honors they feel they earned and were denied for fear of white flight. In legal filings, the school district has denied all allegations of discrimination.

The original transcript was more than 25,000 words. We have condensed the transcript and featured key questions from the audience for the sake of brevity and clarity.

Student: I can’t even begin to imagine the amount of frustration and anger you guys must’ve felt like for being excluded from those positions. When that happened to you guys, what were your classmates’ reactions? Did they support you? Were they against you?

Jasmine: I had got mixed reactions amongst my classmates. Some were very supportive, well all of them were, at first. … But then when we noticed that I should’ve been the sole valedictorian that was when people started to kind of step back. They weren’t willing to speak up.

Olecia: For me, it wasn’t really noted at first. Many people didn’t know. But when everything did come out, I got a lot of support from African Americans. I haven’t had much feedback from [white students] to be able to say their reaction

Student: How did you find out that your position was taken away from you? What was your reaction?

Jasmine: … I took more advanced classes than her, so I knew before they made the announcement that I should have been the sole valedictorian. It was just simple math. But when they told us that we were co-valedictorians, I will admit, I kind of cried because it was just something that I had worked hard for.

Olecia: East Side High School was an IB (International Baccalaureate) school and Cleveland High School was not. And so in that program we had a lot of classes that weighed more (than Cleveland High School’s accelerated classes). … So when the rankings came out, we weren’t at the top like we should be. It got around that the rankings weren’t right.

Parent: Could you just walk us through the narrative of once you found out, what did you do next? Who did you call in terms of pursuing a remedy?

Jasmine: My mom was a big advocate for me. Normally they made the valedictorian and salutatorian announcement at least a week before graduation. It was the day before graduation and we hadn’t heard anything. So we knew something spotty was going on. So my mom went up to the school at 8 o’clock that morning. She waited and she waited [to talk to the principal]. Then she finally talked to him and he was basically trying to lean her off of him a little bit. And then a few hours later he called me and said, ‘Jasmine, I want to congratulate you. This year we have two valedictorians and you’re one of them.’ … As far as communicating with the school and everything, my mom asked them for my documents to see if the district’s calculations were adding up to equal my calculations. My mom worked in the school system for a very long time, so she knew how to calculate the GPA.

Olecia: A student went and got a grade script and saw that the grade script wasn’t right. So my grandmother was like, ‘We should go get your grade script and see.’ So I remember my first grade script came back and it was not right. I was like, ‘Grandma, this is very low … this can’t be right.’… So my grandmother .. she was at the school board, at the central office… every other day we’d be there, getting a different grade script every other day. When my final grades script came out [my GPA] was a 4.41 which ranked me at number two. But when the calls came out for valedictorian and salutatorian, I did not get a call. But I did see on social media that a white male had been announced as salutatorian.

Parent: So I’m just trying to understand from the standpoint of the district. There was no shame? (locals in the room laughed) If you said it’s simple math … how did they navigate that? What else could they have said?

Jasmine: In my case they said it was a clerical error. But both of us were taught that if you make a mistake, you correct the mistake. You don’t hide behind it. So that was the problem … And they’re still saying it was just a mistake. So no, they don’t see any shame, basically. Because they’re stuck in their ways and they’re unwilling to see that black people do have potential to succeed.

Olecia: I didn’t get to answer you. She asked were they ashamed. When you asked that question, everybody laughed. No, they’re not ashamed.

Local Teacher: … within the school, both before the consolidation and since, what’s it like in terms of the makeup of the classes? Is there a noticeable difference in who gets in the accelerated classes? Can you see a disparity there?

Jasmine: Part of your observation was the inequity and the resources that we had. I could still see that at Cleveland High in 2016 just from going over to East Side to take my IB classes – things like them not having take home books or not having lockers, and we had those types of things at our school. … I was mostly in advanced classes. There were typically maybe three black people and 20 white people or more.

Student: If you could turn back time and go back to when you were still in high school and when you were a senior, would you change it if you had the ability to? Would you change it so that you have your proper positions or do you feel like awareness needed to be brought up to this kind of discrimination?

Jasmine: Actually, I don’t think that I would change anything because it takes a person to stand up for what’s right for there to be any change at all. I chose to stand because I mean I have three nieces, four nephews and I didn’t want something like this to happen to them. So it was all about future generations. I thought that me taking a stand and pursuing legal action would have stopped it from happening to someone else, but as you can see it didn’t.

Olecia: At times of course, I wanted things to change because it was the first year of Cleveland Central High School graduation. I wanted to give my own salutatorian speech. I wanted that title … I’m very God-fearing and I believe that I needed to be on this platform. Everything happens for a reason. Many people ask me about how I feel about my lawsuit. I say this all the time – it’s so much bigger than me. It’s not about me.

This Q&A was first published as an exclusive in The Delta Beat, our Delta Bureau’s monthly digest of news, culture and educational analysis. Subscribe to The Delta Beat to be the first to know about Delta happenings. 

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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.

Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.