Until last year, Mississippi's Cleveland High School had never had a black valedictorian. Then Jasmine Shepard, a black student, graduated with the highest GPA in her class.
But instead of recognizing her accomplishment with the title of valedictorian, as it had done throughout its 110-year history, the school named a white student with a lower GPA as Jasmine's "co-valedictorian" one day before graduation. According to Jasmine's mother, Sherry Shepard, this student was then asked to walk ahead of Shepard and give her speech first.
Cleveland High had never selected co-valedictorians prior to 2016, according to a lawsuit filed on June 23, 2017 by Sherry Shepard. Upon learning this, Shepard approached the school's principal, Steven Craddock, and superintendent, Dr. Jacqueline Thigpen, but the school has yet to make an apology or issue a correction.
The school's decision to make Shepard share her title came just a week after a federal court accepted a plan to integrate the extremely segregated middle and high schools in the town, following a five-year-long legal battle. As part of the settlement, the Atlantic reported, the school district agreed to create "a single high school on the historically white Cleveland High campus and a single middle school on the historically black East Side High campus."
The lawsuit alleges that the Cleveland School District, Craddock, and Dr. Thigpen were "upset by [the] recent desegregation order." In making "an African-American student share the valedictorian award with a white student," the suit claims, the district violated Jasmine's 14th and 15th Amendment rights and subjected her to "humiliation, loss of self-esteem, embarrassment, loss of opportunities, [and] mental anguish," among other harms. It demands that Jasmine be named the sole valedictorian in a "declaratory judgment," and also asks that she be awarded monetary damages and any expenses accrued through the litigation process.
The suit follows over a year of social media campaigning, including a Facebook page titled Justice for Jasmine, which garnered Jasmine support from across the country. More recently, Color of Change, a nonprofit civil rights advocacy organization, took up Jasmine's cause, launching a petition on her behalf.
The petition, too, urges Cleveland High School to name Jasmine the sole valedictorian for the class of 2016. "Black girls know all too well that they must often navigate through a landscape that reinforces multidimensional stereotypes, discrimination, and debilitating narratives about their Black femininity," it reads. "Recognizing Jasmine as the sole valedictorian is a small but crucial step to changing these harmful narratives about Black girls."
As of press time, it has garnered over 78,000 signatures and 10,000 comments, and was sent to Shepard's school board, superintendent, and principal ahead of a board meeting they have scheduled for today. Shepard's case, however, is not on their official meeting agenda, and is likely to be settled in court.
Despite the school's apparent indifference to her case, Jasmine continues to receive messages of solidarity from strangers and activists alike. Earlier this month, Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, tweeted, "Jasmine Shepard. A class act. Know that racism is still an evil plaguing this nation and pay attention to aspects of Jasmine's approach."