Black Mississippi student says in lawsuit she was denied graduation honor because of race

High school wanted to avoid "white flight" by awarding salutatorian to a white student with lower scores, claims suit.
Desegregation Ordered In MIssissippi Town
Cleveland High School in Cleveland, Mississippi.Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

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By Minyvonne Burke

A black high school graduate from Cleveland, Mississippi, is suing her alma mater's school district claiming officials did not award her the title of salutatorian because of her race, and instead gave the honor to a white student who had lower scores.

In the suit, filed last week in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, former Cleveland Central High School student Olecia James alleges that two weeks before the school's inaugural graduation in May 2018, she learned that school officials had lowered her grade point average by reducing the "quality points" she had earned from courses at a former school.

Olecia JamesCourtesy Lisa Ross

The complaint states that her former school, East Side High School, was the Cleveland School District's "segregated high school" for predominantly black students and closed in 2016. Cleveland Central is a new school that formed after the merger of East Side and Cleveland High School, which was predominantly white.

The Clarion Ledger reports that the district uses "quality points" to measure the rigorousness of certain courses.

James said she and members of her family met with school and district officials about her quality points and were told by the school's principal, Dr. Randy Grierson, that the low scores were incorrect and suggested the family take the issue up with the district superintendent, Dr. Jacqueline Thigpen.

Thigpen and Grierson are named in the suit, along with the district and a number of other officials who work for the school system.

"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 suit states.

Thigpen declined to address the lawsuit, telling NBC News to refer questions to attorney Arnold Luciano. Luciano did not return a request for comment.

James and her family then took the issue up with the school board, according to the lawsuit. During a meeting last May with several board members and Thigpen, James was given a "new grade script correcting the discrepancies," according to the suit.

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.

According to the suit, the white student was named salutatorian "to prevent white flight."

When James met again with school officials about not being named salutatorian, she was given a grade script that said her QPA had been lowered to 4.33. According to the suit, James was not given an explanation on why her QPA was again lowered.

The suit also accuses school officials of either not assigning, or lowering, quality points of black students who took classes at East Side while not altering the quality points of white students who took classes at Cleveland High School.

Due to James not being named salutatorian, she lost scholarships and other opportunities, according to the suit. She is seeking monetary damages.

James did not immediately respond to NBC News' request for comment. Her attorney, Lisa Ross, said "we shouldn’t be fighting to end discrimination in education" following Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling that said segregated schools were unconstitutional.

"We should be focused on making sure all students enjoy the benefits that come with an integrated education," Ross said.

Suzanne Ciechalski contributed.