/2016 Cleveland High grad ‘I thought that me taking a stand and pursuing legal action would have stopped it from happening to someone else’

2016 Cleveland High grad ‘I thought that me taking a stand and pursuing legal action would have stopped it from happening to someone else’

Nonprofit Mississippi News Recently Olecia James (class of 2018 Cleveland Central High School) and Jasmine Shepard (class of 2016 Cleveland High School) spoke to a group from New Jersey that included educators, parents, and students. The discussion took place at Homestretch Baptist Church, Cleveland, Mississippi. The discussion delved into James’ and Shepards experiences in Cleveland School District. They have filed suit against the district for systemic racism, and inequality. Both Shepard and James are currently in court fighting for academic honors that they believe they have earned. They were denied due to fear of white flight. The school district denied any allegations of discrimination in legal filings. The original transcript contained more than 25,000 words. For clarity and brevity, we have reduced the transcript and included key questions from the audience. Student: I cannot imagine how you guys felt for being expelled from these positions. What were the reactions of your classmates to this? Were they supportive? Did they support you? Jasmine, I received mixed reactions from my classmates. Some were supportive. Actually, all of them were initially. Then, when we realized that I was the sole valedictorian, people began to take a step back. They were not willing to speak out. Olecia: It wasn’t noted initially for me. Many people didn’t know. However, when it all came out, I received a lot support from African Americans. I haven’t received much feedback from white students to be able say my reaction. Student: How did your position get taken away? How did you react? Jasmine: I took advanced classes so I knew that I was the only valedictorian. It was simple math. It was simple math. But, when they said we were co-valedictorians I must admit that I cried a bit because it was something I had worked so hard for. Olecia: East Side High School is an IB school (International Baccalaureate), while Cleveland High School is not. We had many classes that were heavier than the accelerated classes at Cleveland High School, so that was why we had that program. We weren’t at number one in the rankings. The rankings were not correct, it was discovered. Parent: Can you please tell us the story of what you did next after you discovered this? What did you do to find a solution? Jasmine: I was very supported by my mom. They usually made the salutatorian and valedictorian announcements at least one week before graduation. We hadn’t heard anything the day before graduation. We knew there was something wrong. My mom went to school at 8:15 in the morning. She waited, and she waited to talk to the principal. Finally, she spoke to him. He was trying to help her get off his back a bit. A few hours later, he called me to say, “Jasmine. I want you to be congratulated.” Two valedictorians are this year and you’re one…. My mom requested my documents so they could compare my calculations to the calculations of the district. My mom was a teacher for many years so she knows how to calculate GPA. Olecia: One student looked at a grade script, and realized that it wasn’t correct. My grandmother said, “We should go get our grade script and check.” So I recall my first grade script coming back. It was wrong. I was shocked and said, “Grandma, this grade script is too low .’….” So every day my grandmother was at the school board, at central office… getting a new grade script every day. My final grades script showed that my GPA was 4.41, which placed me at number 2. However, I didn’t get a call when the calls were made for salutatorian and valedictorian. However, I saw on social media that the salutatorian was a white male. Parent: I am just trying to understand the district’s perspective. I didn’t feel shame. (locals in the area laughed) If you say it’s simple math, how do they navigate that? What could they have added? Jasmine: They said that it was a clerical mistake in my case. Both of us learned that you have to correct a mistake if you make it. It’s not okay to hide behind it. That was the problem… and they still claim it was a mistake. They don’t see any shame. They are stuck in their ways, and don’t see the potential for black people to succeed. Olecia: Unfortunately, I was unable to give you an answer. She then asked if they were ashamed. Everyone laughed when you asked this question. They’re not ashamed. Local Teacher: What’s the composition of classes in the school before and after consolidation? Are there any noticeable differences in who is allowed to take part in the accelerated classes. Is there a difference? Jasmine, Part of your observation was inequity and resources we had. I saw that at Cleveland High in 2016, just by going to East Side to take IB classes. They didn’t have lockers or take-home books, and those were things we had at our school. … I was mostly in advanced courses. There were usually only three black people and twenty white people, or more. Student: Would you like to go back in time to high school or senior year? Do you think it should be changed to make sure you are in the right place or to raise awareness about this type of discrimination? Jasmine: I wouldn’t change anything. It takes someone to stand up for what is right in order to see any changes. Because I have four nephews and three nieces, I decided to stand. It was all about the future generations. It was my belief that taking a stand and seeking legal action would have prevented it happening to another person, but it didn’t. Olecia: I wanted things to be different at times because that was the first year of Cleveland Central High School’s graduation. I wanted to deliver my salutatorian speech. That title was important to me because I am very God-fearing. Everything happens for reasons. People often ask me how I feel about my lawsuit. This is something I tell people all the time: It’s much larger than me. It’s not just about me. This Q&A was published in The Delta Beat, the Delta Bureau’s monthly digest that includes news, culture, and educational analysis. To be the first to hear about Delta happenings, subscribe to The Delta Beat. To support this important work, you can make a regular donation to The Delta Beat today.