Posted on July 16, 2004

Valedictorian Debate Sparks Outrage

Justin Bergman, AP, Washington Times, Jul. 16

RICHMOND — Moreko Griggs’ grandmother used to stop people in the post office and brag when he finished the ninth grade ranked No. 1 in his class. She was even more proud when he was named the first black valedictorian in Waynesboro High School history.

Then, the day before graduation in June, his grandmother received a call from the principal.

“He said there’s been a change and new grades have come in and we have two more valedictorians,” Mr. Griggs recalled. “We were stunned.”

As was the black community in Waynesboro, a small city in the Shenandoah Mountains about 100 miles west of Richmond. Mr. Griggs was named the school’s top student at an awards ceremony in May, and graduation fliers had been printed listing him as the valedictorian.

“The change at the last minute certainly leaves a lot of unanswered questions,” said the Rev. Mildred Middlebrooks, president of the Waynesboro chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “There are some in the black community who say that we haven’t arrived yet, that there is still racism in the community.”

Miss Middlebrooks is demanding an apology from the school, while the NAACP head from nearby Staunton has suggested the school district pay for Mr. Griggs’ first semester at college.

The outrage has even reached the group’s highest level, with NAACP national board Vice Chairwoman Roslyn Brock comparing it to an academic “lynching” at a banquet in Waynesboro last month.

Waynesboro High School Principal Mitch Peeling defended his decision to change the valedictorian criteria at the last minute, saying he acted on the request of a parent in an unusually close race. The grade-point averages of the three students involved were all within thousandths of a point, he said.

Mr. Peeling denied that race played a part. The other two students are white.

“We felt like it was the right thing to do for all of the participants,” he said.

Traditionally, the school has discounted grades from the final three weeks of classes when calculating grade-point averages at the end of the year. Honors teachers are asked only to provide an estimate of the students’ final grades.

Mr. Peeling said that within a day of the announcement that Mr. Griggs would be valedictorian at the honors assembly May 19, a parent of one of the other two students asked for a review.

Mr. Peeling and the school system then decided to factor in the final three weeks’ grades, including exams, as well as a college-course grade that hadn’t yet come in.

“We do know that there was a flaw in the system,” Mr. Peeling said. “We’re in the process of looking into that and deciding how to do it from here on out.”

Mr. Griggs said he was unaware of the review until the day before graduation.

“You get kind of worried when you are supposed to be the first African-American valedictorian and then stuff has to happen this year,” he said. “How [Mr. Peeling] conducted everything was truly flawed. . . They had nothing written down saying how you determine who is valedictorian.”

Some schools across the country have done away with the tradition of naming a valedictorian amid a spate of lawsuits filed by students who thought they were unfairly denied the honor. In one case filed last year, Blair Hornstine of Moorestown, N.J., said she shouldn’t have had to share the honor with two students with lower grade-point averages.

Miss Hornstine had completed many of her courses with tutors at because of an immune deficiency, which the school said made it impossible for the other two students to match her grade-point average. A federal judge ruled in her favor.

Mr. Griggs ruled out filing a lawsuit, saying he was trying to put the issue behind him. He will study engineering at Rice University in the fall and plans to go to medical school.

Wounds may take longer to heal in the black community.

“It’s a slap in the face of all black youth,” said Tom Morton, president of the NAACP chapter in Staunton.