Federal court rejects Mississippi student’s racial bias suit

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A lawsuit alleging a school district in a small Mississippi Delta town discriminated against a Black student and stripped her of an academic award has been dismissed by a panel of federal judges.

Olecia James filed the federal lawsuit in 2019 against the Cleveland School District, claiming officials prevented her from becoming class salutatorian because they “feared white flight,” according to the Clarion Ledger.

Ahead of James’ senior year, her historically Black high school was merged with a historically white school to comply with a longstanding federal desegregation decree. Merging the two high schools reshuffled class rankings, and James ended up third. Salutatorian, an honor that goes to the graduate with the second-best grades, went to a white student whose score initially appeared to be lower than hers, the lawsuit said. The valedictorian was Black.

In an opinion published Wednesday, a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed a district court decision dismissing James’ claims.

Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan wrote that the consolidated high schools both failed, at times, to follow the district handbook when awarding course credit and quality points for the preceding three years.

“That James did not end up class salutatorian may seem unfair. It was surely disappointing. But it was not unconstitutional,” Duncan wrote.

James’ attorney, Lisa Ross, said the decision was disappointing.

“It demonstrates that students have no expectation that their school districts will have to follow their own handbooks,” Ross said Thursday.

Two weeks before graduation, James found out that school officials lowered her ranking by reducing the points she earned from the courses she took while she was enrolled at East Side High, the lawsuit said.

James sued school officials, alleging that the district’s failure to follow its handbook in determining the rankings denied her due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Duncan wrote that a federal district court had “correctly dismissed her claims” when it found no constitutional violation, saying James did not produce evidence that she was deprived of due process or that the school district had discriminated against her.

The Cleveland School District’s superintendent and lawyers did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment Thursday.

Before James’ case, the district was the subject of a similar lawsuit filed by Jasmine Shepard, who in 2016 became the first Black valedictorian in the 110-year history of Cleveland High School, which was historically white. She said the school made her share the honor with a white student who had been allowed to take extra classes. Ross represented Shepard in the case, which was also dismissed in federal court.

Ross said James graduated from Alcorn State University this spring and is now a second lieutenant in the U.S. army. She plans to attend law school.

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Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.

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