"To see it taken away was heartbreaking," 18-year-old Olecia James claims in a federal lawsuit

By Caitlin Keating
May 03, 2019 05:34 PM
Credit: Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty

A black high school graduate in Mississippi claims that instead of becoming the first salutatorian at the newly integrated Cleveland Center High School, a white male was honored with the title despite having a lower grand point average, according to a lawsuit filed last week.

On May 2, 2018, about two weeks before her graduation, “Olecia James learned that school officials lowered her weighted grade point average by reducing the quality points she had earned from courses she had taken at East Side High School,” the complaint reads, “which was the district’s segregated high school until the school closed in 2016.”

According to the Washington Post, the Mississippi Cleveland School District desegregated in 2017 “after a federal judge found it was operating an illegal dual system for black and white children.”

Cleveland Center High then opened up after one school that was on the historically white side of town combined with a school on the historically black side of town, the newspaper reports.

James, now 18 and studying mass communications at Alcorn State University, went with family members to meet with numerous school officials to discuss the courses and the quality points. Principal Randy Grierson stated that he had no access to her records and suggested they reach out to district superintendent, Dr. Jacqueline Thigpen, the suit states.

According to the complaint, Dr. Thigpen “refused to address the issues and provided no explanation as to why Olecia James’ quality points were stated incorrectly on her grade scripts.”

The new grade script showed that James had a weighted quality point average, or QPA, of 4.41, making her the first salutatorian. However, Grierson named a white male student with a QPA of 4.34 as the salutatorian, the suit states.

After further attempts to correct her grades, James and her grandmother, Yvonne Herron, met with the Cleveland School District School Board, which apologized, and Dr. Thigpen then gave James a new and corrected grade script, according to the suit.

Along with Dr. Thigpen and Grierson, the school board and other school officials are defendants in the lawsuit.

An attorney for Cleveland High School and the Cleveland School District did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.

“The defendants, in light of the newly formed consolidated Cleveland Central High School and in their angst to prevent white flight, named W.M., a white male student, as salutatorian of the inaugural class of Cleveland Central High School in 2018, a position he had not earned, and in doing so, discriminated against Olecia James, a black female who had earned the position,” the complaint reads.

This is not the first time the school district is involved in a lawsuit over race. In June, a trial will explore the case of Jasmine Shepard, “a black student who sued the district in 2017 after she claimed she was named ‘co-valedictorian’ with a white student who had a lower grade-point average,” the newspaper writes.

Lisa M. Ross, who represents both James and Shepard, told the Post the school district created a “false narrative” about racial equality and felt they had to choose a white student because they named a black student valedictorian in 2018.

“Because another black student was named valedictorian at Cleveland Central in 2018, the second spot had to go to a white person,” she said.

According to the suit, the “plaintiff has suffered loss of scholarships, loss of opportunities, humiliation, loss of self- esteem, embarrassment, mental anguish, emotional distress, pain and suffering, and other damages to be shown at the trial of this matter.”

In an interview with the newspaper, James said that she lost out on a scholarship for salutatorians at the University of Mississippi because she lost the salutatorian status.

“I knew what I had worked for,” she the Post. “I knew what the other East Side students had worked hard for. To see it taken away was heartbreaking.”