Two Black students at West Point High School were initially named top of their class and later made to share the honors with white classmates.

A dispute over grade calculations at West Point High School has ignited intense community debate and allegations of racism after two Black students were initially named top of their class and later made to share the honors with white classmates.

Ikeria Washington and Layla Temple, two Black students at the high school, were named valedictorian and salutatorian of their class at a senior awards ceremony, several days before graduation.

But after a white parent questioned school officials about whether they were following guidelines in the school handbook in determining the top students, Superintendent Burnell McDonald named two other students — who are white — as co-valedictorian and co-salutatorian on Thursday morning, the day of graduation.

McDonald told Mississippi Today the high school guidance counselor was new to the school and was given incorrect information about how to determine the designations. The counselor selected the two students based on quality point average (QPA), which is measured on a 4.0 scale, instead of a strict numerical average of the students’ semester grades over their high school career, which the district defines as its grade point average (GPA), he said.

McDonald said he looked at how valedictorian and salutatorian had been determined in past years and saw it was based on a 0-100 scale, or what the school refers to as GPA. The initial calculation was not conducted the proper way, he said.

But the handbook a few pages later says GPA “is calculated by averaging the grade point weights assigned to semester averages,” which are 0.0 through 4.0. It goes on to say “Some classes may be weighted double see guidance counselors for this information..” (sic)

A few pages earlier, under “Class Rank,” the handbook simply says “A student’s rank in his/her graduating class will be calculated by averaging his/her semester averages.”

“(The parents’) argument was that based on our handbook, we should’ve been using semester averages,” he said. “And when you generate the report from the system, it clearly shows the two white students would’ve been first and second based on that number.” 

McDonald continued: “If someone assumes I was discriminatory in my decisions, they are absolutely wrong. I don’t know if you can tell on the phone, but I’m African-American myself… This is not based on who the parents are, the race of the kids — it’s based on doing what’s right for all students.”

When contacted by Mississippi Today, Synethia Mathews, the 2018 valedictorian of West Point High School, echoed McDonald, saying it’s her understanding she was chosen based on her overall GPA. Attempts by Mississippi Today to reach other former valedictorians and salutatorians from the school were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, Angela Washington and Lakira Temple, the mothers of the Black students, have questions.

“I’m still baffled,” said Washington, who said she and Temple had a meeting with the West Point High School principal, an assistant superintendent and McDonald at lunch on the day of graduation. She said in that meeting, McDonald told her different information — that based on how the school has made its calculations in the past, her and Temple’s daughters would be ranked first and second.

“What it looks like is because the handbook doesn’t specifically say GPA (grade point average) or QPA (quality point average), to make the other side happy, he changed the rules on his own,” said Washington, who has requested a meeting with the school board this month.

On page 10 of the school’s 57-page handbook, under the heading “Class Rank,” it states only: “A student’s rank in his/her graduating class will be calculated by averaging his/her semester averages.” But in a separate district-wide policy detailing how dual enrollment and dual credit courses are calculated, it uses a 4.0 scale to “determine QPA and GPA calculations,” which some say means the district has not always defined GPA as a 0-100 score.

McDonald and other school officials admit the policy is unclear and needs to be better defined, but in the case of the four students, the damage had already been done. He then decided the fair thing to do was to name all four valedictorian and salutatorian and allow all to speak at graduation.

That way, he pointed out, all of the benefits from receiving the titles – such as scholarship offers to colleges – would be available to all of them.

Washington said she and Temple found out about the other valedictorian and salutatorian on social media and did not receive a call from the school. Both mothers said the daughters were not explicitly told either, but instead were asked to return their stoles to the school without explanation.

Temple said her daughter is deeply disappointed. 

“The superintendent made her feel as if she wasn’t as smart as the other kids, and that she shouldn’t believe that she’s on their level,” she said. 

Washington said Ikeria “has suffered public humiliation, pain and suffering, and emotional distress” as a result of the confusion and lack of communication.

At the graduation ceremony on Thursday, McDonald took the stage at the beginning and apologized. 

“Nobody else deserves to be ridiculed for the decision that I made … I pray, I ask you humbly, if there’s a problem that you have with anything, or whatever’s been said, charge it to me and please don’t charge it” to anyone else, he told the crowd. 

Ikeria, Layla and the two other students, Emma Berry and Dominic Borgioli, then gave their speeches before the graduates walked across the stage to receive their diplomas. Layla’s speech hinted at the controversy.

“I’m so very grateful, honored and humbled to be the true class of 2021 salutatorian,” she began. 

A Facebook Live recording of the ceremony garnered almost 1,000 comments, many of which accused school officials, Berry, Borgioli and their families of cheating Layla and Ikeria out of their honors because of race. 

But McDonald and Melissa Borgioli, the mother of co-valedictorian Dominic, said this has nothing to do with race. They also said the rumors — including that McDonald was coerced into making the decision — have gotten out of hand.

“Because those two young ladies are African American and my son and the other person are white, it’s become a racial issue when it’s strictly a ‘the counselor did not use the correct policy and the school wouldn’t admit it’ issue,” said Borgioli, who said she and her family have been threatened on social media and by calls to her home.

A similar situation in Cleveland School District led to lawsuits. A senior filed suit against the district in 2017, alleging that school officials forced her to share the 2016 valedictorian title with a white student despite her having a higher GPA. The judge ultimately ruled that while the school may have erred, a federal civil rights violation was not committed.

Another lawsuit brought by Olecia James, a former student at Cleveland Central, alleged she was stripped of the salutatorian honor for fear of white flight. Her case is still pending in federal court.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.