An African American woman has filed a federal lawsuit against a Mississippi school district, claiming that a white student was named "co-valedictorian" alongside her daughter, despite the white student having a lower grade point average (GPA).
The day before Jasmine Shepard graduated from Cleveland High School in Cleveland, Mississippi, in May 2016, the school awarded her and a white student the title "co-valedictorian," according to the suit filed to a federal court in the Northern District of Mississippi on Tuesday. This was a first in the 110-year history of the school, the suit said.
"Prior to 2016, all of Cleveland High School's valedictorians were white," the suit says. "As a result of the school official's unprecedented action of making an African-American student share the valedictorian award with a white student, the defendants discriminated against."
An attorney for the Cleveland School District called the lawsuit "frivolous" and said the students "had identical grade point averages."
"As such, under school board policy, they were both named valedictorian of their graduating class," Jamie Jacks wrote in an email. "The district's policy is racially neutral and fair to students."
Sherry Shepard, Jasmine's mother, said it was easy to calculate the students' grade-point averages because the community is so small.
"These children have been attending school with each other since middle school," she said. "We know the schedule, we know what they take, and we have a good idea where the discrepancy lies."
The "co-valedictorian" designation also came "on the heels of a federal judge's ruling that the Cleveland School District had failed to desegregate its schools approximately 50 years" after being ordered to do so, the lawsuit says. In her ruling from last year, the judge ordered the schools to be integrated.
"The delay in desegregation has deprived generations of students of the constitutionally-guaranteed right of an integrated education," US District Court Judge Debra M Brown wrote last year. "Although no court order can right these wrongs, it is the duty of the district to ensure that not one more student suffers under this burden."
The school district in Cleveland, a town of 12,000 where railroad tracks largely separate white and black families, initially fought the judge's order but later dropped the challenge.
In an interview, Sherry Shepard, who maintains a "Justice for Jasmine" Facebook page, said her daughter was forced to speak after the white valedictorian at graduation, and also was slated to walk behind her before she objected.
"A child, when they earn honours, they are entitled to receive them," Sherry Shepard said. "There is no inclusion in the Cleveland school district. When the district wants something, they just take it."
The suit asks for unspecified monetary damages and for Jasmine Shepard to be declared "sole valedictorian."
The white valedictorian was identified in the suit only as "H.B." and Sherry Shepard called her "the kindest-hearted, sweetest person."
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