Olecia James, left, and Jasmine Shepard. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

A decision by a panel of federal appeals judges upheld the ruling that a Cleveland Central High School student did not have her civil rights violated in the process of awarding graduation honors. 

Olecia James, a 2018 graduate of Cleveland Central, had her GPA recalculated weeks before graduation which resulted in her being ranked third and losing her position as salutatorian. James alleged in the original lawsuit that the change was racially motivated to allow a white male to receive the honor instead due to fear of white flight from the school district, which had recently consolidated East Side High School and Cleveland High School into Cleveland Central under a federal desegregation order.

After filing suit in the spring of 2019, a federal district ruled that James’s civil rights had not been violated in the summer of 2021, which was upheld on Friday. 

“That James did not end up class salutatorian may seem unfair. It was surely disappointing. But it was not unconstitutional,” the most recent order reads. 

James was not the first student to file suit against the Cleveland School District for discrepancies with graduation honors. Jasmine Shepard, who alleged that school officials forced her to share the 2016 valedictorian title with a white student despite Shepard having a higher GPA, also lost her case in federal court and her appeal, according to court documents. 

“It’s sad that students have no rights that school officials are bound to respect relative to academic honors in the Fifth Circuit (Appeals Court),” Lisa Ross, attorney for James and Shepard, told Mississippi Today. “While students must play by the rules, school officials are permitted to make up rules about academic matters at the end of a student’s graduating year.” 

James told Mississippi Today in 2019 that she lost eligibility for a scholarship to the University of Mississippi because she lost salutatorian status. She instead decided to attend Alcorn State University, majoring in mass communications. 

“I was sad but at the moment it was all about resilience and controlling what you can control,” James said in 2019. “I got a lot of doors opened for me … and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for me at Alcorn.”

Attorneys for the school district and former school officials did not respond by press time.

Read the full ruling here.


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Julia, a Louisiana native, covers K-12 education. She previously served as an investigative intern with Mississippi Today helping cover the welfare scandal. She is a 2021 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied journalism and public policy and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She has also been published in The New York Times and the Clarion-Ledger.