Just when you thought we may have finally gotten a break from hearing the word “recount” ad nauseum after the most recent election cycle, two white families broke the respite after two Black students beat out their kids for graduation honors at a West Point, Miss., high school.
According to the New York Times, Ikeria Washington and Layla Temple were named valedictorian and salutatorian for West Point High School 2021 class. The joyous moment was quickly soured when the parents of Emma Berry and Dominic Borgioli–who were both near the top of the class–cried foul and claimed that they should have been honored instead.
They called for the school to recalculate their students’ grade point averages. As a result, West Point High School decided to make Berry and Borgioli co-valedictorian and co-salutatorian with Washington and Temple.
Naturally, this decision was not well-received. The Times reports:
“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.”
West Point school officials and the Berry and Borgioli families argued that none of this had to do with race, but rather the way that the school calculated the final grade point averages of all four students.
“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 Times also noted that some were concerned that the Berry family’s history in West Point may have been a deciding factor in giving Emma Berry the retroactive honor–as she is a descendant of the co-founder of what used to be West Point’s largest employer, Bryan Foods.
Even though the local Bryan pork processing factory shut down in 2007, the extended Bryan family remains among the town’s most influential. Several local institutions bear the family name, including the public library.
Emma Berry’s father told the Times that “the family name, the Bryan name, never came into play.”
Whether or not this issue was a matter of race or a matter of following rules will likely be disputed until the end of time itself, but two things are unassailable:
1. The optics don’t look good. It’s understandable for any parent to defend the academic integrity of their children, and it’s not uncommon for there to be disputes after valedictorians are named. But due to Mississippi’s long history with segregation (which still happens in some schools within the state) and other educational equity issues, it’s easy to see why it looks like these two white families are upset solely because their kids were bested by two Black students.
2. The school district didn’t handle this situation well at all. Washington and Temple’s parents told the Times that they were not informed of the district’s decision ahead of graduation. In fact, Temple’s mother first learned of the decision after Berry’s mother posted a picture of her daughter and Borgioli on social media, which made the rounds.
“They had no intention of telling us,” Lanika Temple, Layla’s mother, said. “They were just going to have us show up at graduation. If it was truly a mistake, you contact the students and the family. They didn’t have enough respect to tell us. I feel it was underhanded.”
“I didn’t even get a courtesy call,” Ms. Washington said.
It also did not help that the district allowed for two unrecorded grades of Berry’s to be added to her record after the deadline had passed, which the West Point branch of the NAACP told the Times isn’t a courtesy offered to all students.
West Point Superintendent McDonald apologized during the school’s graduation ceremony.
“Bottom line, school board, I apologize,” Mr. McDonald told the assembly. “You charged me with doing what I really believe is right by your students despite race, color, socioeconomic, whatever. God knows when I make a decision for kids, my heart is for kids and doing the right thing. So I ask you, please, for tonight, let’s make our graduates feel special.”
The Washington and Temple families are considering a lawsuit, the Times reports.