Posted on June 17, 2021

Two Black Students Won School Honors. Then Came the Calls for a Recount.

Stephanie Saul, New York Times, June 11, 2021

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 N.A.A.C.P. in West Point, Miss., Anner Cunningham, smiled as the two young women, both standout students, were photographed. {snip}

But almost immediately parents of other students near the top of the rankings raised questions about who should have been honored. Within days, and breaking with longstanding 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 counselor resulting largely from a confusion over which of two methods for calculating final grades should have been used.


Lisa M. Ross, a lawyer in Jackson, the state capital, who has 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.


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.


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.


{snip} Over the next day, however, the parents of Emma and Dominic did their own homework.

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

At issue was just how to calculate who the top two students were. Ikeria and Layla won based on a calculation of quality point average or Q.P.A., 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 grade point average.

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 Student Handbook, the school had not followed its own rules in calculating class rank.

After talking with the white parents, Mr. McDonald, who is Black, concluded that the handbook and tradition backed them up: In the school system, class rank has been calculated by unweighted grade point average, not Q.P.A., which would have made the two white students the honorees.

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


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


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


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

Both white families say they have been threatened.

Ms. 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,” Ms. Borgioli said. “And it’s been made racial and that infuriates me. This has to do with math.”