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Shepard v. The Cleveland School District

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Greenville Division

September 30, 2019

JASMINE SHEPARD PLAINTIFF
v.
THE CLEVELAND SCHOOL DISTRICT; STEVEN CRADDOCK, in his individual capacity; and DR. JACQUELINE THIGPEN, in her individual and official capacity DEFENDANTS

          OPINION AND ORDER

          DEBRA M. BROWN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Cleveland High School named two co-valedictorians of its 2016 graduating class-Jasmine Shepard, who is African American, and H.B., who is white. Shepard, believing she would have been named sole valedictorian but for racial animus, filed this action against the Cleveland School District, Jacqueline Thigpen, and Steven Craddock, alleging under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 equal protection and due process violations. The School District and Thigpen, in her official capacity, have moved for summary judgment; and Thigpen and Craddock, each in an individual capacity, have moved for summary judgment. Because Shepard has failed to establish a basis for liability under § 1983 with respect to the defendants, the motions for summary judgment will be granted.

         I

         Summary Judgment Standard

         A party is entitled to summary judgment when “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Rule 56(a) “mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

         II

         Factual Background

         A. The Parties

         Before their consolidation in 2017, Cleveland High School and East Side High School, both located in Cleveland, Mississippi, operated separately in the Cleveland School District. Doc. #186-2 at 72. Cleveland High has been referred to as the “white high school.” Id. at 12. East Side High historically was “majority black.” Doc. #180-1 at 8. In 2017, both high schools closed and were consolidated into a single high school-Cleveland Central High School. Doc. #186-2 at 72. Cleveland Central is now the only public high school in Cleveland. Id. at 72-73.

         Prior to consolidation, Steven Craddock[1] was Cleveland High's principal and is now assistant principal at Cleveland Central. Doc. #186-2 at 72. Jacqueline Thigpen[2] has been the superintendent of the School District since 2008. Doc. #180 at 22-23.

         With respect to its 2016 graduating class, the School District named two co-valedictorians. Doc. #190-6 at 2. One was Jasmine Shepard, who is African American. Id.; Doc. #177-1 at 57, 66. The other was H.B., who is white. Doc. #190-6 at 2; Doc. #177-1 at 71-72.

         B. Relevant School District Procedures

         1. Rank Points and Class Rank

         The School District's Student Handbook set forth the procedure for valedictorian determination:

The Grade Point Average (GPA) used to determine final senior ranking for each student shall be calculated by dividing the total rank points accumulated by the total semester credits accumulated.
If A TIE EXISTS using the procedure above, then the student with the higher numerical average computed by dividing the total numerical average for all semester credits earned by the total number of semester credits earned will be accorded the higher ranking.
If A TIE STILL EXISTS, then the student with the higher number of grade points will be accorded the higher ranking.
If A TIE STILL EXISTS, then there shall be a tie in the final ranking.

Doc. #183-8 at 14.[3]

         For the purpose of class rank, during the time period relevant to this case, classes at Cleveland High were designated “regular, ” “accelerated, ” or “advanced.” Id. An “A” earned in a regular class was worth four rank points; an “A” earned in an accelerated class was worth five rank points; and an “A” earned in an advanced class was worth six rank points.[4] Id. The Curriculum Guide, which provided the designations for classes, [5] defined regular classes as classes that were not accelerated or advanced. Doc. #183-7 at 9.

         2. Online Course Policy

         Thigpen and Lisa Bramuchi, the School District's Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Assessment and Instruction, [6] incorrectly believed that during the 2014-2015 school year, the School District was authorized to offer online courses for credit that would count toward students' graduation requirements.[7] Doc. #180-1 at 77; Doc. #185-2 at 41, 42. Although the School District permitted at least two students, one of whom was H.B., to enroll in an online course for credit, [8] it did not broadcast or announce this option was available. Doc. #184-1 at 65. The Curriculum Guide in effect at the time the two students enrolled in an online course for credit did not contain information regarding online courses. See id.; Doc. #183-7.

         C. Transcript Errors and Access to Online Courses

         1. H.B.'s Rank Points

         H.B. took Human Anatomy & Physiology (“Human A&P”) and online Physics during the 2014-2015 school year, earning an “A” in both courses. Doc. #213-4 at 1; Doc. #130-1 at PageID 697. Her Human A&P course was designated as accelerated, which resulted in five rank points. Doc. #130-1 at PageID 697. Her online Physics course was designated as advanced, which resulted in six rank points.[9] Id.

         In the applicable Curriculum Guide, Physics I was designated as an accelerated class; Physics II was listed as an advanced class; and Physics and Human A&P did not appear under either category. Doc. #183-7 at 9. For the 2014-2015 school year, Human A&P was designated at Cleveland High as advanced in some records and accelerated in others.[10] None of the entries for Human A&P at Cleveland High reflected the designation in the Curriculum Guide for 2014- 2015, which was regular. See id.

         At the time of her deposition, Thigpen believed Human A&P was an advanced course but was unable to locate it in the Curriculum Guide's list of accelerated and advanced courses. Doc. #181-1 at 155; Doc. #180-1 at 108. Bramuchi testified that it was not a regular course and that the Curriculum Guide was incorrect in listing it as a regular course. Doc. #185-2 at 76-77, 78.

         Cynthia Kemp was the School District's MSIS[11] Coordinator from 2010 until the summer of 2018. Doc. #190-3 at 18, 19. Her job was to “make sure [the system] calculates the weights it's supposed to calculate.” Doc. #185-2 at 60; see Doc. #130-4 at 4. Kemp understood this to entail ensuring that the points for each course were accurate according to the Curriculum Guide. Doc. #190-3 at 95. However, she did not consult the Curriculum Guide to determine whether she was assigning the correct weights to courses during the relevant time period. Id. at 112.

         On three different grade reports run by Kemp on April 22, 2015, she designated Human A&P as advanced, then regular, then accelerated. Doc. #190-4 at 116-17. She could not explain why the same class was designated as three different course types. Id. at 117. According to Kemp, the weights of courses “roll over” automatically from previous school years, but that they were “rolling over wrong.” Id. at 118; Doc. #190-3 at 52, 61.

         In designating H.B.'s Physics course as advanced, Kemp consulted the Mississippi Department of Education's course codes instead of the Curriculum Guide. Doc. #190-3 at 104- 05. Thigpen testified that Physics was an accelerated course because Physics I was listed as accelerated in the Curriculum Guide and that H.B. should have received 5 rank points for her “A.” Doc. #181-1 at 154. Bramuchi testified that Physics was an advanced course but that the Curriculum Guide erroneously designated it as an accelerated course. Doc. #185-2 at 65-67.

         2. Online Physics and Desktop Publishing Courses

         H.B. was unaware she could take online classes until she consulted Alyson Jones, a white guidance counselor at Cleveland High. Doc. #187-4 at 13-14, 153; Doc. #188-3 at 26-29. H.B. told Jones that she was enrolled in a biology course she did not want to take, and asked whether there were other options to earn quality points. Doc. #188-3 at 27. Jones informed H.B. that she could take online Physics during her study hall period. Id. at 31. J.W., another white Cleveland High student, was also given permission to take the online course. Id. at 36.

         Shepard did not know she could take an online course. Doc. #130-2 at 99. Shepard attempted to consult Jones about her schedule but could “never find her because she would never be in her office.” Id. at 35. Shepard relied on the Curriculum Guide, which did not contain information about online courses. Id.; Doc. #184-1 at 65.

         When Shepard was enrolled in Human A&P, she informed Jones she wanted to be placed in a different course because it was listed only as a “four-point course, ” which would have actually lowered her GPA even if she received an “A, ” and that she wanted to take courses that awarded more rank points. See Doc. #130-2 at 38. When Jones “didn't do anything for a few days, ” Shepard informed her mother, who wrote Jones a letter with a request to remove the class from Shepard's schedule and enroll her in “an elective, study hall, or office monitor” for that period. Id.; Doc. #125-2 at 1. Shepard's mother explained in the letter that “[Jasmine] has too much on her plate” and that “I want Jasmine to be challenged with rigorous courses, but I do feel that she is burdened by the current schedule.” Doc. #125 at 1-2. Jones removed Human A&P from Shepard's schedule and placed her in Desktop Publishing, which Jones knew Shepard had already taken and passed. Doc. #130-2 at 38; see Doc. #187-4 at 62. It was contrary to the School District's practices for a student to receive credit for a course she had already completed and earned an “A.” Doc. #185-2 at 48-49. When Shepard voiced her concern to Jones about re-taking a class she had already passed, Jones responded, “Well, there's nothing else I can do for you. Just sit in the class.” Doc. #130-2 at 38. Shepard was told that she would not receive an additional grade. Id. at 77.

         Jones testified that she re-enrolled Shepard in Desktop Publishing because it was the only class available in that period and did not inform Shepard that online Physics was an option because Shepard's mother had indicated that Shepard was overloaded. Doc. #187-4 at 62. Jones knew Shepard's race at the time. Id. at 53. At the end of her junior year, Shepard discovered that she had in fact been given a grade for re-taking Desktop Publishing but did not inform the teacher or Craddock. Doc. #130-2 at 78.

         D. Naming of Co-Valedictorians

         Sometime in May 2016, SAMS[12] calculated the averages that were used to determine Shepard's and H.B.'s class ranking. Doc. #127-2 at 111. One of Cleveland High's guidance counselors notified Craddock that SAMS had produced a class rank report in which two students' cumulative weighted QPAs were tied.[13] Id. at 95-96. Craddock took the report to Thigpen, and they reviewed it together. Id. Thigpen “looked at the class rank report, saw two students on there with the same GPA, same QPA, verified that they were the same, and … said, [i]t appears as if we've got two valedictorians.” Doc. #180-1 at 89. The two valedictorians were Shepard and H.B.

         Neither Craddock nor Thigpen attempted to determine whether the correct number of rank points had been assigned to the courses in H.B.'s transcripts or Shepard's transcripts. Doc. #184-2 at 12; Doc. #127-2 at 101. Craddock did not have access to students' grade scripts at that time. Doc. #127-2 at 98. While it was Thigpen's responsibility to ensure that the information in SAMS and MSIS was correct, she did not verify the information in Shepard's and H.B.'s grade scripts because she “trusted people to have done their job.” Doc. #180-1 at 91. It was not customary in the School District to manually re-calculate students' GPAs to verify class rankings. Doc. #187-4 at 112.

         Following the commencement ceremony at which Shepard and H.B. were announced as co-valedictorians, [14] Shepard's mother wrote a letter to the School District and Thigpen challenging “the Co-Valedictorian Classification and Senior Ranking.” Doc. #178-4. Thigpen responded to the letter on June 7, 2016, requesting that Shepard's mother “provide specific information” regarding what policies were violated, how they were violated, and by whom. Doc. #179-1. Thigpen stated that “[a]fter this information is ...


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