Two Black students won school honours. Then came the demands for a recount

After two white families claimed a grade calculation error, a Mississippi school added their children as co-valedictorian and co-salutatorian, reviving questions about race and equity.

At first, it seemed a joyous occasion. There was an audible gasp in the room, then boisterous cheering and applause when the announcement was made: Ikeria Washington and Layla Temple had been named 2021 valedictorian and salutatorian for West Point High School.

The president of the local NAACP in West Point, Mississippi, Anner Cunningham, smiled as the two young women, both standout students, were photographed. “It was a beautiful and proud moment to witness two young, Black ladies standing side by side given such honours,” Cunningham said.

But almost immediately, parents of other students near the top of the rankings raised questions about who should have been honoured. Within days, and breaking with long-standing tradition, West Point High School decided to name two valedictorians and two salutatorians — with two white students, Emma Berry and Dominic Borgioli, joining the Black students who had already been named.

And in the nearly three weeks since that senior awards night, West Point, a mostly Black town in the northeastern part of the state, has been split largely along racial lines, roiled by a dispute that included threats, a potential lawsuit and allegations of racism posted on Facebook.

Officials say that race had nothing to do with the events in West Point, but instead blamed a mistake made by a school counsellor resulting largely from confusion over which of two methods for calculating final grades should have been used.

In a world in which students, and their ambitious parents, fight for the tiniest edge over their classmates, West Point is hardly the first high school to see senior class honours veer into acrimony and legal issues. A dispute over the valedictorian designation recently prompted a lawsuit in Alpine, Texas, population 6,000.

In Mississippi, where some public schools once defied federal orders to admit Black students and issues of educational equity are still raw, who gets honoured and how can dredge up painful questions that are impossible to disentangle from the state’s racial history. In the past five years, Black women in Cleveland, Mississippi, about 450km away, have twice filed federal lawsuits alleging they had been cheated in their school’s selection of valedictorian and salutatorian.

Lisa Ross, a lawyer in Jackson, the state capital, who handled those cases, said questions about the selection process, and whether it is fair, are not uncommon.

“Every year around graduation, I get calls from parents who are concerned that their children are being cheated out of valedictorian and salutatorian,” she said, later adding, “Race is really still a big struggle in Mississippi.”

Ikeria’s mother, Angela Washington, was oblivious to any supposed miscalculation in West Point as she was leaving the auditorium after senior awards. But as she was accepting kudos and generally basking in her daughter’s glory, she said she overheard Emma pledging to challenge the decision to give the awards to Ikeria and Layla.

“She was upset. She had been crying. She thought it was going to be her night,” Angela Washington said in an interview.

Emma’s father, Shawn Berry, was also upset, he said in an interview, because the family had kept up with his daughter’s averages and knew she was at the very top.

“We’ve been tracking this since she was in the seventh grade,” Shawn Berry said, adding that his daughter had repeatedly received awards for highest class rank over the years.

“This is why, when it all went down, we were like, ‘Wait, what?'” he said.

Melissa Borgioli was also confused. Her son, Dominic, had been ranked third at the end of his junior year, but had “worked his butt off this year,” she said.

“I can’t say it without sounding like I’m bragging about my child, but he owned the awards day. Hall of fame, top this, male athlete with the highest GPA,” she said. Why wasn’t Dominic in the top two, she wondered.

The parents of the just-named valedictorian and salutatorian left the ceremony, aware that Emma Berry and her father were upset, but thinking nothing of it. Over the next day, however, the parents of Emma and Dominic did their own homework.

“We found the 2020-2021 handbook,” Shawn Berry said. “It all came down to the handbook.”

At issue was how to calculate who the top two students were. Ikeria and Layla won based on a calculation of quality point average or QPA, a system of calculating grades that gave extra weight to advanced placement and dual credit courses. But, it turned out, Dominic and Emma were the top two finishers based on unweighted GPA.

The parents of the two white students held discussions with Burnell McDonald, the superintendent of West Point schools. They complained that based on the West Point High School Handbook, the school had not followed its own rules in calculating class rank.

After talking with the white parents, McDonald, who is Black, concluded that the handbook and tradition backed them up: In the school system, class rank has been calculated by GPA, not QPA, which would have made the two white students the honourees.

The evening before graduation, McDonald informed the parents of Dominic and Emma: He was adding the two white students as co-honourees — Dominic was now co-valedictorian and Emma co-salutatorian.

McDonald also permitted two missing grades — which a teacher had failed to record in the system — to be added to the final grade in one of Emma’s classes, past a deadline and after senior awards night.

Shawn Berry said that the grades added for Emma did not change the outcome.

Once the decision was made, race was not the only issue that was raised.

Some cited, at least in perception, family influence as a potential factor in the naming of co-honourees. Emma Berry is a descendant of the co-founder of Bryan Foods, once West Point’s largest employer. Even though the local Bryan pork processing factory shut down in 2007, the extended Bryan family remains among the town’s most influential. Several local institutions bear the family name, including the public library.

“The family name, the Bryan name, never came into play,” Shawn Berry said.

Shortly after learning from the superintendent that her daughter would be honoured as co-salutatorian, Emma’s mother posted a picture of Emma and Dominic on Facebook, announcing they were the valedictorian and salutatorian.

The next morning, as Ikeria and Layla prepared for their commencement speeches, calls started flooding the phone of Lanika Temple, Layla’s mother, with news about the picture, which had been reposted all over social media. She headed to the school.

Ikeria, Layla and their mothers ended up in meetings at the school that day, first with the principal then with McDonald, the superintendent.

“I really wanted to cry in the office,” Ikeria said. “I held my tears and when I left the office, I just started crying.”

For the two parents, it has come down to a question of fairness — and questions not only about the switch but also about why they were kept in the dark until they saw the picture.

“They had no intention of telling us,” Lanika Temple said. “They were just going to have us show up at graduation. If it was truly a mistake, you contact the students and the family. They didn’t have enough respect to tell us. I feel it was underhanded.”

“I didn’t even get a courtesy call,” Angela Washington said.

Melissa Borgioli said she had heard Ikeria and Layla’s parents learned their daughters would share honours with the other students through social media. “I don’t know what is true,” she said, “but the school district handled it in the worst possible way.”

The Washington and Temple families are considering a lawsuit, and they have enlisted the advice of Ross, the lawyer from Jackson. Ross questions the methodology used to determine class rank in West Point — saying it makes no sense — and why weighted scores are not used.

“Anybody in education knows that a weighted GPA signifies that a student has taken more rigorous courses than a student with a 4.0 GPA,” Ross said.

Cunningham, the president of the local NAACP, has raised questions about why Emma’s unrecorded grades were logged, while other students were not given that opportunity.

“If you allow such a courtesy, it needs to be offered to ALL seniors,” Cunningham wrote in an email.

She is urging the school system to reverse those grade changes, and said she will attend a school board meeting Monday night along with Angela Washington and Lanika Temple, who plan to air their grievances.

Both white families say they have been threatened.

Melissa Borgioli said one phone caller, his voice lowered to a whisper, told her she was “going to hell” for being a racist.

“This has nothing to do with race,” Melissa Borgioli said. “And it’s been made racial and that infuriates me. This has to do with math.”

On graduation night, all four students delivered their speeches at a ceremony at Humphrey Coliseum at nearby Mississippi State University.

Despite predictions swirling on social media that the ceremony would erupt into a brawl, it concluded without disruption, just a muted dissent from Layla, who introduced herself as the “true salutatorian.”

McDonald, whose office did not respond to repeated requests for comment, opened the ceremony with a mea culpa.

“Bottom line, school board, I apologise,” McDonald told the assembly. “You charged me with doing what I really believe is right by your students despite race, colour, socioeconomic, whatever. God knows when I make a decision for kids, my heart is for kids and doing the right thing. So I ask you, please, for tonight, let’s make our graduates feel special.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Written by: Stephanie Saul
Photographs by: Timothy Ivy

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