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‘I’m Still Baffled’: Mississippi Black Students Asked to Share Honors with White Students on Morning of Graduation After White Parents Questioned Selection Process

A Mississippi high school’s decision to honor a co-valedictorian and a co-salutatorian alongside two other students that had already received the titles has sparked controversy and allegations of racism.

Initially, two Black students, Ikeria Washington and Layla Temple, were named valedictorian and salutatorian of their class at West Point High School in West Point, Mississippi, during the presentation of senior awards on May 27. But after a white parent contacted the school and questioned officials about whether they’d followed the guidelines outlined in the student handbook for selecting the top students, two other students, both white, were named co-valedictorian and a co-salutatorian on the morning of graduation on June 1.

A parent of one of the initial honorees said the superintendent made her daughter “feel as if she wasn’t as smart as the other kids, and that she shouldn’t believe that she’s on their level.”

Ikeria Washington and Layla Temple (left), were named valedictorian and salutatorian before they were required to share the honor with Emma Berry and Dominic Borgioli (right). (Photos: Hank Ellison/ Twitter, Jean Bryan Moore/Facebook)

On social media, people criticized the school’s decision, prompting Superintendent Burnell McDonald to issue a statement clarifying the decision.

“(The parents’) argument was that based on our handbook, we should’ve been using semester averages,” he said. “And when you generate the report from the system, it clearly shows the two white students would’ve been first and second based on that number,” McDonald told Mississippi Today.

“If someone assumes I was discriminatory in my decisions, they are absolutely wrong. I don’t know if you can tell on the phone, but I’m African-American myself. … This is not based on who the parents are, the race of the kids — it’s based on doing what’s right for all students.”

McDonald said the school guidance counselor, who was new to the school, was provided with incorrect information about how to make the selections. The counselor made the designations based on quality point average, which is measured on a 4.0 scale, instead of grade point average, which is a strict numerical average of a student’s semester performance throughout their high school career. McDonald said the designations are usually made on the 0 to 100 grade point average scale.

According to the student handbook, “A student’s rank in his/her graduating class will be calculated by averaging his/her semester averages.” But another district policy states that dual credit and dual enrollment courses are calculated using a 4.0 scale to determine QPA and GPA, which some say indicates the school has not always determined GPA on a 0 to 100 scale.

Angela Washington and Lakira Temple, the mothers of the Black students, had a meeting with McDonald and the school principal on the day of the graduation and say they were provided with conflicting information.

“I’m still baffled,” said Washington, who was left with the impression that based on how the school has made the calculations in the past, her and Temple’s daughters would have been ranked valedictorian and salutatorian.

“What it looks like is because the handbook doesn’t specifically say GPA (grade point average) or QPA (quality point average), to make the other side happy, he changed the rules on his own,” she said.

The parents said they learned about the other two students receiving the honors through social media but didn’t receive communication from the school. Their daughters were asked to return their stoles to the school without explanation.

All four students, including Emma Berry and Dominic Borgioli, were allowed to speak at gradation, where McDonald apologized at the beginning of the ceremony.

On Facebook, Washington claimed school officials changed the rules to help Berry and Borgioli because their scholarships were in jeopardy. She said the students didn’t take many higher-weighted courses while she and Temple’s daughters had. “In my eyes they are the only Val and Sal of 2021,” Washington wrote.

Angela Washington Facebook comment/ Screenshot

Original salutatorian Layla Temple began by saying, “I’m so very grateful, honored and humbled to be the true class of 2021 salutatorian.”

Melissa Borgioli, the mother of one of the co-honorees, dismissed the idea that the situation had anything to do with race.

“Because those two young ladies are African-American and my son and the other person are white, it’s become a racial issue when it’s strictly a ‘the counselor did not use the correct policy and the school wouldn’t admit it’ issue,” said Borgioli, adding that her family had received threats on social media.

In a statement, West Point Consolidated Schools said, “We apologize for any confusion and problems this has caused. The school district takes full responsibility for this misunderstanding.” The Facebook page has since been deleted.

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