Black valedictorian forced to share honor with white student, lawsuit says

The black valedictorian of a Mississippi high school was forced to share her graduating class’s top honor with a white student who had a lower grade-point average, the woman’s mother says in a federal lawsuit.

The allegation comes months after the Cleveland School District settled a 52-year-old lawsuit demanding that it desegregate its schools.

Sherry Shepard noted the settlement in the lawsuit filed last week, which alleges that her daughter, Jasmine, had to unfairly share the 2016 Cleveland High School valedictorian honors.

She further claims that Jasmine Shepard was the first black valedictorian in Cleveland High’s 110-year history. The other 109 were white, Sherry Shepard alleged.

“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 J.S.,” the lawsuit says, claiming Jasmine Shepard has suffered lost opportunities, mental anguish, pain and suffering as a result of the decision.

The lawsuit targets the district, the superintendent and Cleveland High’s principal and seeks unspecified monetary damages. It does not identify the valedictorians, but CNN is naming them as they both spoke to its reporters last year about the federal desegregation order.

In a Facebook post, Jasmine Shepard said she and her family have faced ugly attacks and name calling as a result of the more recent lawsuit. She included a screen grab of a message that incorporated the N-word and said, “Black lives don’t mean s***!”

“You may disagree with us in this plight, but please respect us as well as others on this page. Name calling and bashing is not necessary!” Jasmine Shepard posted.

District will seek lawsuit’s dismissal

School district attorney Jamie Jacks, who has staunchly defended the district’s efforts to comply with federal desegregation orders over the years, said Monday that the district had not been served with Shepard’s lawsuit.

But the district plans to file a motion to dismiss the “frivolous” suit, according to a statement from Jacks.

“The district has a racially neutral policy regarding the valedictorian honor. The policy is when there is a grade point average tie between two or more students, the students share the valedictorian honor,” the statement said.

“In this case, the district followed its policy. The students involved had identical grade point averages and shared the valedictorian honor,” it said.

Jacks did not immediately respond to an email containing followup questions.

A call and email to the Shepard family attorney, Lisa Ross, were not returned. Efforts to reach Sherry Shepard were unsuccessful. Reached via Facebook, Jasmine Shepard referred media inquiries to Ross.

Softer tone last year?

Jasmine Shepard, then 18, spoke to CNN last year about the federal judge’s order to integrate. Appearing alongside her co-valedictorian, Heather Bouse, she defended the school district, saying students were given a choice of which high school to attend.

She appeared friendly with Bouse, helping Bouse fix her hair and situate her graduation tam atop her head. Though Jasmine Shepard conceded that consolidating the high schools would ultimately be a good thing, she bristled at the perception that Cleveland was an out-of-touch backwater stuck in the era of Jim Crow.

“We have different cultures, and we all kind of just join together,” she said of Cleveland High. “The reality is that we get along fine. We are all diverse and everything. They think we’re a bunch of racists, basically. We’re not.”

Added Bouse, “I think we’re more progressive than most people see we are. … We get along much better than they think we do.”

The creation of Cleveland Central High

Earlier this year, a US federal court accepted a settlement with the Cleveland School District, by which the district’s high schools and middle schools will be consolidated to accommodate all district children. The settlement means that nearly all-black East Side must be integrated with the historically white but now racially split Cleveland High.

The new school, slated to host its first classes in the fall, will be called Cleveland Central High School.

Before the settlement, the school district had fought the 1965 lawsuit for years. Speaking to CNN last year, Jacks explained the school district had responded to federal demands by establishing neighborhood schools and allowing students to pick which school they wanted to attend.

Many black students and graduates said they opted to attend East Side, and they had no qualms about it. The school has a reputation for athletics and grand homecoming celebrations. Many youngsters’ parents and extended families went to East Side. To them, it was about tradition.

‘It’s really hurtful’

Still, Jacks said, she felt the district had achieved an integrated district, “the only one for hundreds of miles in the Mississippi Delta.”

She pointed to testimony during the case that showed Cleveland’s schools were more integrated than those in Kansas City, Missouri; Fulton County, Georgia; Dallas and Denver.

“For someone to come in and say you’re doing these awful things when you know in your heart that you’ve tried multiple tactics to try to get things the way the DOJ would want them, it’s really hurtful,” Jacks said.

Opinions on school integration in this former rail and blues hub cover the spectrum. There are whites who want integration, blacks who oppose it, Cleveland High students who want to merge with East Side and East Side students who want their school left alone.

Ultimately, the federal court didn’t care as much about public opinion as it did about making sure all Cleveland’s youngsters had the same quality of education.

After all, it was 63 years ago that the US Supreme Court said in its Brown v. Board of Education ruling, “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”