Mother sues school for forcing black daughter to share valedictorian honors with white student

A Mississippi woman has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of her daughter after she was forced to share valedictorian honors with a white student during her May 2016 high school graduation. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

A Mississippi woman has filed a lawsuit against her daughter’s school district after her daughter was forced to share valedictorian honors in May 2016 with another student who allegedly had a lower grade-point average.

Sherry Shepard, who is black, filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the Cleveland School District, alleging that her daughter, Jasmine Shepard, was named “co-valedictorians” with a white student who had a lower GPA the day before graduation.

The suit was filed in the Northern District of Mississippi on June 27.

“Prior to 2016, all of Cleveland High School’s valedictorians were white. 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,” the suit reads, according to the Washington Post.

Shepard maintains a Facebook page — “Justice for Jasmine” — to bring awareness to her daughter’s situation.

Sherry Shepard told the Post that the school arranged for the white valedictorian to both speak before her daughter and walk in front of her. However, she put a stop to her daughter walking behind the white student.

“A child, when they earn honors, 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.”

“These children have been attending school with each other since middle school,” Sherry explained. “We know the schedule, we know what they take, and we have a good idea where the discrepancy lies.”

The white student in question is only identified by the initials “H.B.” in the suit, and Shepard described her as “the kindest-hearted, sweetest person” in her remarks to the Post.

The Cleveland School District has denied any wrongdoing and has called the lawsuit “frivolous.”

An attorney for the school district, Jamie Jacks, told the Post that both students had “identical” GPAs, so it was fair to make them both class valedictorians.

“As such, under school board policy, they were both named valedictorian of their graduating class,” Jacks told the Post. “The district’s policy is racially neutral and fair to students.”

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 suit says. The judge, in her ruling last year, ordered the schools to be integrated.

“The delay in desegregation has deprived generations of students of the constitutionally-guaranteed right of an integrated education,” U.S. 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.

Shepard is seeking an unknown amount of monetary damages as well as the right for her daughter to be called “sole valedictorian.”