Olecia James thought she was treated unfairly when she finished third in the rankings of the graduating class at Cleveland Central High School in Mississippi. It’s understandable that she felt that way. The district botched the situation. But the 5th Circuit held that Ms. James did not have a “property interest” in her class ranking, and thus she had no basis to claim a constitutional violation.
The problem arose when two high schools were merged due to a 50-year old desegregation decree. (Just now??) Now there were more students in the senior class, and Ms. James, a model student, slipped from second to third in the rankings. However, both of the high schools had made mistakes in awarding credits as called for in the student handbook. The superintendent discovered the problem several weeks prior to gradation and took corrective action, ordering a review of all transcripts so that grades would be properly aligned with the handbook.
This did not sit well with Olecia or her family because she received fewer “quality points” than she thought she should have. The student and her family complained and the superintendent granted their request to award Olecia the additional points she wanted.
So far so good for Olecia. But then another “disgruntled parent” came forward and the superintendent “backtracked again.” The superintendent issued her final decision, calling it “the fairest outcome for a bad situation.” This moved Olecia, soon to be known as “the plaintiff,” from second place to third.
The court dismissed the case for reasons that are well established. Yes, students have a “property interest” in their public school education that is protected by the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. But that “property interest” is triggered “only by a student’s total exclusion from the educational process.” It does not apply to the exclusion from extracurricular activities. It does not guarantee that a student gets to attend the school they’d prefer to attend. It applies to expulsion and suspension, but not to class rank.
I was personally pleased to see the court repeatedly cite Nevares v. San Marcos CISD, 111 F.3d 25 (5th Cir. 1997). That’s the case where the court held that the Due Process Clause does not apply when a student is assigned to the DAEP. My late, great law partner, Eric Schulze, represented San Marcos in that case.
This case is another in the long line of cases in which federal judges point out that they do not wish to be school administrators. Key Quote:
It would be a fool’s errand to try to write federal due process rules governing how schools should award honors or how many quality points an Algebra II class should get. Federal judges have no business constitutionalizing such matters. “If we wanted to do that, we would have run for school board.”
This one is James v. The Cleveland School District decided by the 5th Circuit on August 17, 2022. It’s cited at 2022 WL 3443916.
DAWG BONE: IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN UNFAIR. IT WASN’T UNCONSTITUTIONAL.
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