CLEVELAND — A federal judge recently ruled that while Cleveland School District may have erred when it awarded valedictorian to both Jasmine Shepard, who is African American and another white student, a federal civil rights violation was not committed.
Shepard filed suit against the school district in June 2017, alleging that school officials forced her to share the 2016 valedictorian title with a white student despite Shepard having a higher GPA. Hers was the last class to graduate as Cleveland High School before a federal desegregation order caused Cleveland High, which was historically white and East Side High, which was majority black to consolidate.
“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 read.
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During her senior year, Shepard was enrolled in Human Anatomy and Physiology but asked to be removed from the class. According to the curriculum guide, this class was not ranked as high as accelerated or advanced classes and would actually lower her GPA even if she got an A. When she asked to be removed from this class, she was put in Desktop Publishing – an elective class she had already taken and aced.
According to an opinion issued by U.S. District Court Judge Debra Brown, Shepard was not made aware that she could enroll in online classes while two other white students were. Brown also writes in her opinion that these online classes had not been approved by the Mississippi Department of Education.
“Shepard did not know she could take an online course. Shepard attempted to consult (school counselor Alyson) Jones about her schedule but could ‘never find her because she would never be in her office.’ Shepard relied on the curriculum guide, which did not contain information about online courses,” the judge’s opinion states.
The white student with whom Shepard shared the valedictorian role also took Human Anatomy and Physiology but was erroneously awarded more points than what the curriculum guide allowed. She was also one of the white students who was allowed to enroll in a non-approved online physics class. These two errors combined boosted her GPA to be as high as Shepard’s, according to court filings. Shepard being put in a class she had already taken also lowered her GPA.
“There is no dispute that rank points were improperly assigned or that these improper assignments negatively affected Shepard,” wrote Judge Brown.
Arnold Luciano, who represents the school district, said that errors were made on a district level, but that those errors were accidental did not rise to the level of a federal civil rights violation.
When it comes to creating new policies that would ensure what happened to Shepard doesn’t happen to more students, Luciano said, “I’m not going to say that there will be new policy or procedures implemented. This is a case of accidents will happen. We’re doing our best so when actions like this do happen it’s a reminder that we need to continue to be vigilant to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Attorney Lisa Ross, who represents Shepard, said she doesn’t believe Shepard’s case is one of random accidents, but were instead racially motivated.
“I do not believe that [Cleveland School District] would have let a white child sit in a class that she had already earned an A in because they didn’t have anywhere else to put her,” Ross said.
The suit was filed against Cleveland School District, former superintendent Jacquelyn Thigpen and former Cleveland High School principal Steven Craddock.
Brown wrote in her opinion that under federal law, for Shepard to have prevailed in court she would have had to prove that the discrimination occurred because an official policy was put in place that led to the deprivation of rights. She would have also had to prove that there had been a pattern of deprivation and that Thigpen and Craddock were well aware of it. Brown ultimately ruled that these claims could not prevail because they did not meet this criterion.
Olecia James, an African-American graduate of the recently consolidated Cleveland Central, filed suit against the district in May alleging similar facts. James said she was stripped of the salutatorian honor for fear of white flight; a white male was awarded salutatorian instead. Her case is still pending.
When asked whether the facts established in this case could lend themselves to showing a pattern in James’ case, Ross said, “I do believe some of the language in this case will help us when we get to [James’] case.” She also said she plans to appeal the ruling in Shepard’s case.
“We plan to appeal because we do believe that race was the motivating factor in the valedictorian selection process … whether these were all errors or whether these were motivated by race, that’s why we’re appealing because we believe a jury should decide.”