The New York Times
Her high school said she was third in her class. So she went to court.
Dalee Sullivan looked straight into his computer camera and began to present his case to the judge. She referred to the transcripts, emails and policies she had taken from the student manual at Alpine High School. The school, she argued, had made mistakes in compiling weight averages: classes and exams that should have been included were left out, and vice versa. Sullivan had won Lincoln-Douglas debate tournaments and, in his first year, was a member of the mock trial team. But she is not a lawyer. She’s 18, and she graduated from secluded public high school in the small town of Alpine in West Texas just over a week ago, which was why she was in court to begin with. “This serves to prove that regardless of the outcome of the GPA competition, and no matter how many times the school has recalculated the GPA,” Sullivan told the judge at a hearing on Friday, the Alpine Independent School District. was going to make sure I could never be a valedictorian, even though I deserved it. Sign up for The Morning newsletter from New York Times School officials, who said she came third in her class. Sullivan disagreed. She couldn’t find a local lawyer who would agree to take on her case. A Dallas company told her she would, she said , but estimated that the case could cost her $ 75,000 – far more than she could afford. Instead, she figured out how to draft an injunction request and represented herself in the 394th court. District of Texas. She thought her GPA might, in fact, have been higher than that of one or both of the students in front of her, which made her worthy of the title of Salvatorian or even Valedictorian. She and her parents protested her rank last month and claimed the school had not intentionally invited her to an awards ceremony where the best students were honored. The school district said it recalculated his grades multiple times and each time Sullivan was consistently ranked third. In a statement Friday, school officials declined to discuss the allegations raised by Sullivan, saying the district was “not free to discuss the individual student.” “While we respectfully disagree with the prosecution’s allegations,” the statement said, “we take the concerns of students and parents very seriously and will continue to address the concerns of the student.” It is not entirely unusual for disputes over the top places in upper secondary school classes to turn into litigation. The competition for such accolades can be an intense, even cut-throat, zero-sum game. And in the struggle to be a majority, there is more at stake than the right to brag. In Texas, top-ranked high school graduates can receive free classes for their first year at public institutions around the state. Sullivan and his parents were inspired by a case last year in Pecos, Texas, about 100 miles from Alpine, where two students claimed to be Valedictorian amid confusion over a “problem” in the paintings of the ‘school. One of the students – with professional legal representation – applied for a restraining order and sought an injunction to prevent Pecos High School from appointing its major. After Sullivan couldn’t find a lawyer, his parents were disappointed but willing to drop the case. But she refused. She obtained advice and family records in the Pecos case, using the petition in this case as a guide to begin writing her own. His parents – his father, a breeder; her mother, a forensic investigator – reread it and helped her tidy up the tongue. “We’re not even close to being lawyers,” Sullivan said. In Alpine, a town of about 6,000 people in Big Bend Country, Texas, some who know Sullivan said they were surprised she would accept this. There are other ways to spend your last summer before college. (She plans to attend the College of Charleston in South Carolina and major in biophysics with the goal of getting into medicine.) But she had always been serious about school and a little firm in her resolve. “She’s already in college, she already has scholarships,” said Teresa Todd, a local government lawyer who is a long-time friend of Sullivan’s mother and whose sons are nearing age. by Sullivan. “She worked really hard for this, and I think all kids deserve to know where they fit in the pecking order.” “Kids have to show their work,” Todd added. “Why doesn’t the school have to show their work?” She said she offered Sullivan some advice before her audition: “Be herself. Be respectful. Don’t let the other side get you out of your game. ”Sullivan conceded some nervousness ahead of the hearing, particularly after documents filed by school district attorneys cited a host of legal precedents and were strewn with terms she did not know. But overall, she was confident. “I have all the evidence,” she said. “I have all the facts. And no one knows it as well as I do. All kinds of cases end up in the 394th District Court, whose jurisdiction spans five counties roughly equivalent in size to the country’s nine smallest states combined. The court hears criminal cases, divorce proceedings and now a high school graduation fight. Judge Roy B. Ferguson has a reputation for taking the judicial medley in stride. His courtroom got a flash of viral fame in February when a video clip of a lawyer trapped behind a filter that made him look like a blurry white kitten in a boomeranged Zoom hearing on the internet. (“I’m not a cat,” the lawyer said.) Ferguson found humor in it. He added a reference to the unlikely episode on the court’s website and accepted an invitation to discuss it at a symposium on remote court hearings in Poland. In a recent criminal proceeding, when a lawyer apologized for the audio complications, Ferguson replied, “You’re not a cat, so you’re ahead of the game!” With Sullivan, he was patient and explained the procedure in a way he wouldn’t have to do with a professional. When she asked a question that was too broad, he encouraged her to narrow it down. (He often chairs high school mock trials, including the State of Texas against Luke Skywalker.) Kelley Kalchthaler, an attorney representing the school district, argued that Sullivan had not exhausted the district’s grievance process. . “We don’t think the tribunal has jurisdiction over this case,” she said, “and all parties should be sent back. She also raised objections to much of the evidence Sullivan wanted to include, saying it was hearsay or questioning the relevance of the case. In several cases, Ferguson agreed. “Very well, Ms. Sullivan, are you prepared to present evidence in support of your claim?” Ferguson said. “You bear the burden of this temporary injunction here.” Sullivan presented his case. “It’s not a true reflection of my high school career,” she said of her final transcript, “so it’s already done irreparable damage.” She wanted an independent audit of honorary graduation marks. She didn’t have that on Friday. Ferguson ruled the dispute should go through the school district’s grievance process. However, the case has not been closed. If she was not happy with the outcome, the judge told her, she could come back to court. This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company