JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – A lawsuit alleging that a school district in a small town in the Mississippi Delta discriminated against a black female student and deprived her of an academic award has been dismissed. by a panel of federal judges.
Olecia James filed a federal lawsuit in 2019 against the Cleveland School District, claiming officials blocked her from becoming a class salutatorian because they “feared white flight,” according to the Clarion Ledger.
Prior to James’ senior year, his historically black high school was merged with a historically white school to comply with a longstanding federal desegregation order. The merger of the two high schools shook up the class rankings and James found himself third. Salutatorian, an honor that goes to the graduate with the second-highest grades, went to a white student whose score initially appeared lower than his, the lawsuit said. The valedictorian was black.
In an opinion released Wednesday, a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld a district court ruling denying James’ claims.
Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan wrote that consolidated high schools had sometimes failed to follow the district handbook when awarding course credit and grade points for the previous three years.
“That James didn’t end up becoming a class salutatorian may seem unfair. It was surely disappointing. But it wasn’t unconstitutional,” Duncan wrote.
James’ lawyer, Lisa Ross, said the decision was disappointing.
“It demonstrates that students don’t expect their school districts to be forced to follow their own textbooks,” Ross said Friday.
Two weeks before graduation, James discovered that school officials had lowered her grades by reducing the points she had earned in classes she had taken while enrolled at East Side High. , according to the lawsuit.
James sued school officials, alleging that the district’s failure to follow its manual for determining grading denied him due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Duncan wrote that a federal district court ‘properly dismissed her claims’ when it found no constitutional violation, saying James failed to produce evidence that she was denied due process regular or that the school district had discriminated against him.
The Cleveland School District superintendent and attorneys did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment on Friday.
Prior to James’ case, the district was the subject of a similar lawsuit brought by Jasmine Shepard, who in 2016 became the first black valedictorian in Cleveland High School’s 110-year history, which was historically white. She said the school made her share the honor with a white student who was allowed to take additional classes. Ross represented Shepard in the case, which was also dismissed in federal court.
Ross said James graduated from Alcorn State University this spring and is now a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. She plans to go to law school.
Michael Goldberg is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.
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