Federal court rejects Mississippi student’s racial bias suit

Aug 19, 2022, 5:33 PM | Updated: 6:06 pm

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 Friday.

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 Friday.

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.


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.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Lead water pipes pulled from underneath the street are seen in Newark, N.J., Oct. 21, 2021. (AP Pho...

Associated Press

Biden to require cities to replace harmful lead pipes within 10 years

The Biden administration has previously said it wants all of the nation's roughly 9 million lead pipes to be removed, and rapidly.

4 days ago

Facebook's Meta logo sign is seen at the company headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., on, Oct. 28, 2...

Associated Press

Meta shuts down thousands of fake Facebook accounts that were primed to polarize voters ahead of 2024

Meta said it removed 4789 Facebook accounts in China that targeted the United States before next year’s election.

4 days ago

A demonstrator in Tel Aviv holds a sign calling for a cease-fire in the Hamas-Israel war on Nov. 21...

Associated Press

Hamas releases a third group of hostages as part of truce, and says it will seek to extend the deal

The fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hamas was back on track Sunday as the first American was released under a four-day truce.

9 days ago

Men look over the site of a deadly explosion at Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City, Wednesday, Oct. 18, ...

Associated Press

New AP analysis of last month’s deadly Gaza hospital explosion rules out widely cited video

The Associated Press is publishing an updated visual analysis of the deadly Oct. 17 explosion at Gaza's Al-Ahli Hospital.

12 days ago

Peggy Simpson holds a photograph of law enforcement carrying Lee Harvey Oswald's gun through a hall...

Associated Press

JFK assassination remembered 60 years later by surviving witnesses to history, including AP reporter

Peggy Simpson is among the last surviving witnesses who are sharing their stories as the nation marks the 60th anniversary.

12 days ago

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, ...

Associated Press

Israeli Cabinet approves cease-fire with Hamas; deal includes release of 50 hostages

Israel’s Cabinet on Wednesday approved a cease-fire deal with the Hamas militant group that would bring a temporary halt to a devastating war.

13 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Follow @KTAR923...

The 2023 Diamondbacks are a good example to count on the underdog

The Arizona Diamondbacks made the World Series as a surprise. That they made the playoffs at all, got past the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Wild Card round, swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS and won two road games in Philadelphia to close out a full seven-game NLCS went against every expectation. Now, […]

Follow @KTAR923...

West Hunsaker at Morris Hall supports Make-A-Wish Foundation in Arizona

KTAR's Community Spotlight this month focuses on Morris Hall and its commitment to supporting the Make-A-Wish Foundation in Arizona.



Key dates for Arizona sports fans to look forward to this fall

Fall brings new beginnings in different ways for Arizona’s professional sports teams like the Cardinals and Coyotes.

Federal court rejects Mississippi student’s racial bias suit