KINGWOOD, Texas — Karen Scherr is the top academic student in her class at Kingwood High School in the Houston area, and she has been for the past four years.
But when the 18-year-old receives her diploma this month, she’ll do so without the title just about everyone expected her to have: valedictorian.
Kingwood High school has handed that honor to another student, saying Scherr doesn’t qualify for the award.
“I was disappointed,” said Scherr. “I’d hoped the rule would not have to be enforced.”
Attendance record negates academic record
Scherr was referring to a requirement that the school’s valedictorian be enrolled in classes by the 20th day of their junior year.
It’s a rule aimed at keeping students from other schools from transferring into Kingwood late in their high school careers to claim one of the coveted top 10 academic spots.
Scherr’s been in the Kingwood school system since kindergarten. But she wasn’t enrolled in her high school on that 20th day of her junior year.
Instead, she was in a treatment facility seeking help for the eating disorder, anorexia nervosa.
“I was sick. That’s part of the disorder,” said Scherr. “It’s a mental disease.”
While the school warned the Scherr family of their strict attendance policy, her parents made the decision to keep her hospitalized in Oklahoma until her medical treatment was complete a few weeks later.
Through it all, she kept up her class work and stayed at the top of her class despite her illness.
Students rally behind her
“I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to help her immediately. She’s worked so hard for it,” said Lauren Bonds, the Kingwood school newspaper editor.
Bonds also battled the eating disorder and felt Scherr should be rewarded, not punished, for seeking help. “I know what it’s like to go through that. It’s always with you.”
Despite student petitions and pleas from students on the Top 10 list at Kingwood High, school officials said the title instead would go to the number two student, Alex Gorham.
Gorham said the victory would be a hollow one for him and asked the school to reconsider.
Many in the senior class of 800 felt the same.
“She has a disease,” said Travis Boeker, a fellow student. “If it was cancer, this wouldn’t be an issue.”
“She was able to maintain her grades and still stay ahead of the class during a very difficult personal time,” said student Addison Beard. “The title belongs to her.”
Scherr says she made the right choice to miss school to seek treatment. “That was the best decision. I don’t regret it at all. It was a choice made with input from my parents and doctors. I’m ok with it.”
School officials insist they won’t change their minds, saying it would be unfair to retroactively change the rules at the end of the school year.
Kingwood has offered Scherr the title Honorary Valedictorian — a title she’s not sure she’ll accept. More important than the trophy, the teen says, her self-esteem is intact.
“That’s more important than any achievement or any title you could ever get,” Scherr said. “I’m thankful I’ve learned that at this point in my life, at 18 years old.”
A young woman who says she doesn’t need a prize to appreciate all she’s accomplished, inside and outside the classroom.
Janet Shamlian is an NBC News Correspondent based in Dallas.