The New York Times
Her high school said she placed third in her class. So she went to court.
Dalee Sullivan looked straight ahead into her computer camera and began arguing her case before 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 errors in calculating the cumulative averages: courses and exams that should have been included were omitted, 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 the only 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 whatever the outcome of the GPA competition, and no matter how many times the school recalculated the GPA,” Sullivan told the judge at a hearing Friday, the Alpine Independent School District “was going make sure I could never be a valedictorian, even if I deserved it. Sign up for The Morning newsletter from New York Times School officials, said she came third in her class. Sullivan disagreed. She couldn’t find a local attorney who would agree to take on her case. A Dallas company told her she would, she said, but felt that the case could cost her $ 75,000 – far more than she could afford. Instead, she figured out how to draft an injunction and represented herself in the 394th court of District of Texas. She thought her GPA might, in fact, have been higher than that of one o u of the two students in front of her, which made her worthy of the title of Salvatorian or even of 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 released Friday, school officials declined to discuss the allegations raised by Sullivan, saying the district was “not free to discuss the particular student.” “While we respectfully disagree with the allegations in the lawsuit,” 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 uncommon for disputes over the top spots in high school leaving classes to escalate into litigation. The competition for such accolades can be an intense, even ruthless zero-sum game. And in the fight to be a valedictorian, there is more at stake than bragging. 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 college students claimed to be valedictors amid confusion over a “problem.” in school tables. One of the students – with professional legal representation – filed a restraining order and sought an injunction to prevent Pecos High School from appointing its promotion major. After Sullivan couldn’t find a lawyer, his parents were disappointed but ready to drop the case. But she refused. She obtained advice and family records in the Pecos case, using the petition in that 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 language. “We’re not even close to being lawyers,” Sullivan said. In Alpine, a town of about 6,000 in Texas’ Big Bend Country, some who knew Sullivan said they were surprised she was taking it on. 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 entering medicine.) But she has 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 longtime friend of Sullivan’s mother and whose sons are close to 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 gave Sullivan some advice before her hearing: “Be herself. Be respectful. Don’t let the other side distract you from your game. Sullivan conceded some nervousness ahead of the hearing, particularly after school district attorney files cited a multitude of legal precedents and were littered with terminology. that 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 come before 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 battle for high school classification. 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 appear as a fuzzy white kitten in a Zoom hearing took to 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 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, claiming it was hearsay or questioning the relevance of the case. In several cases, Ferguson has agreed. “Alright, Mrs. Sullivan, are you prepared to present evidence to support your claim?” Ferguson said. “You bear the burden of this temporary injunction here. Sullivan explained 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 did not receive it on Friday. Ferguson ruled the dispute should go through the school district’s grievance process. However, the case was not 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