The parents of two Black high school students in West Point — originally named valedictorian and salutatorian before their school claimed an error showed two white students were the actual honorees — will address the school board about the issue Monday evening.
The discussion about the mixup, which has garnered national media attention in recent days, will be behind closed doors, the school board attorney for West Point Consolidated School District, told Mississippi Today. Board attorney Thomas Storey said the parents will address the board in executive session because of student privacy concerns.
Angela Washington and Lakira Temple, the mothers of the two Black students who were originally named as valedictorian and salutation for West Point High School, referred Mississippi Today’s questions to their attorney Lisa Ross.
Ross, in a Monday interview with Mississippi Today, questioned why the school board plans to meet behind closed doors.
“What does the board have to hide?” Ross said. “I think the board should be transparent.”
After Ikeria Washington and Layla Temple were named valedictorian and salutatorian of their class at a senior awards ceremony on May 24, a white parent questioned school officials about whether they were following guidelines in the school handbook in determining the top students.
Less than a week later on the day before graduation, Superintendent Burnell McDonald named two other students — who are white — as co-valedictorian and co-salutatorian.
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 and takes into account weighted courses, instead of an unweighted numerical average of the students’ semester grades over their high school career, which the district defines as its grade point average (GPA), he said.
“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 told Mississippi Today last week.
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.”
He then made the decision to name all four students valedictorian and salutatorian and allow all of them to speak at graduation.
Ross told Mississippi Today on Monday that she and the parents of Washington and Temple don’t buy McDonald’s reasoning.
“Are (West Point school board members) hiding page 14 of the (school) handbook…” Ross asked ahead of the school board meeting.
Ross was referring to the section of the school handbook that Washington and Temple say proves their daughters are the rightful valedictorian and salutatorian. Meanwhile, Melissa Borgioli and Shaun Berry — the parents of the two white students who were named co-valedictorian and salutatorian — point to another page in the handbook that states class rank is “based on the average of semester averages.”
Page 14 of the handbook, however, says that GPA is “calculated by averaging the grade point weights assigned to semester averages. Some classes may be weighted double see counselors for this information (sic).”
Last week, McDonald acknowledged to Mississippi Today that the school’s policy was unclear and needs to be better defined.
All four students are eligible for college scholarships given to incoming students who held the titles. But Layla Temple, the Black co-salutatorian, told MSNBC on Monday that according to her transcript, she’s number three in her class.
“So I don’t know if that would interfere with any of my salutatorian scholarships,” she said on national television.
McDonald has since declined to answer questions from Mississippi Today, citing possible litigation.
Ross said her clients’ goal for the school board meeting on Monday is for the district to provide specific information that backs up what the superintendent said.
“Is the district prepared to show that every (past) valedictorian and salutatorian were named based solely on their GPA? That’s what we would like to know,” said Ross.
She also questioned why the school district removed the school’s handbook from the website and took down its Facebook page after the news about the error spread.
Berry, the father of white salutatorian Emma Berry, said he also “welcomes an investigation” into what happened and wishes the discussion would be accessible to the public. He said he plans to attend the meeting.
He also said his daughter has monitored her class rank since eighth grade, and every year she has been at the top of the class based on her unweighted grade point average, or the average of her grades without additional credit given for Advanced Placement and dual credit courses. That’s why the news the week before graduation that she had not been named valedictorian or salutatorian came as such a shock.
The meeting will be held as Temple and Washington, along with their daughters, continue to make appearances on national television. MSNBC, according to the West Point parents, is preparing to host a segment on the issue Tuesday.