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The New York Times
Her high school said she was third in her grade. So she went to court.
Dalee Sullivan looked straight into her computer camera and began taking her case to the judge. She was referring to transcripts, emails, and guidelines taken from the Alpine High School student handbook. The school made mistakes in tabulating the grade points: classes and exams that should have been included were left out and vice versa. Sullivan had won Lincoln-Douglas debate tournaments and was a member of the mock trials team for her freshman year. But she is not a lawyer. She is 18 years old and graduated from solitary public high school in the small town of Alpine, west Texas a week ago, so she was on trial first. “This serves as evidence that regardless of the outcome of the GPA competition and no matter how many times the school recalculated the GPA,” Sullivan told the judge during a hearing Friday that the Alpine Independent School District “would do so I’m sure I could never be a valedictorian even if I deserved it. ”Sign up for The New York Times School’s The Morning Newsletter and announce that she is third in her class. Sullivan disagreed. She couldn’t find a local attorney who would agree to take her case. A Dallas firm told her it would, she said, but estimated the case could cost her $ 75,000 – Far more than she could afford. Instead, she figured out how to file a restraining order and represented herself in the 394th Texas District Court I could have been higher than either or both of the students standing before her, which made her worthy of the title Salutatorian or even Valedictorian. She and her parents had protested her rank last month, claiming that the school had deliberately not invited her to an awards ceremony that honored top students. The school district has said it calculated their grades repeatedly and that Sullivan still came in third every time. In a statement Friday, school officials declined to discuss Sullivan’s allegations, saying the district was “not free to discuss individual students.” “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 students’ concerns.” It is not entirely uncommon for disputes over top positions in high school graduating classes to escalate into litigation. The competition for such awards can be an intense, even ruthless, zero-sum game. And there is more at stake in the battle for the Valedictorian than just bragging rights. In Texas, senior high school graduates can get their first year of free tuition in state public institutions. Sullivan and her parents were inspired last year by a case in Pecos, Texas, about 100 miles from Alpine, in which two students claimed to be Valedictorian and puzzled over a “mistake” in the school’s tables. One of the students – with professional legal representation – filed for a restraining order and requested a restraining order to prevent Pecos High School from naming their valedictorian. After Sullivan couldn’t get a lawyer, her parents were disappointed but willing to drop the matter. But she refused. She received advice and materials from the family in the Pecos case and in this case used the petition as a guide to start writing her own. Her parents – her father, a rancher; Her mother, a forensic interviewer, read it over and helped her clear up the language. “We’re nowhere near lawyers,” Sullivan said. In Alpine, a town of roughly 6,000 in Texas’ Big Bend Country, some who know Sullivan said they were surprised she would take this over. There are other ways to spend the final summer before college. (She plans to go to the College of Charleston, South Carolina, and get a degree in biophysics to go into medicine.) But she had always taken school seriously and was a bit steely of determination. “She’s already in college, she’s already got scholarships,” said Teresa Todd, a local government attorney who is a longtime friend of Sullivan’s mother and whose sons are near Sullivan. “She worked really hard for it, and I think all kids deserve to know where in the pecking order they fall.” “Children need to show their work,” added Todd. “Why doesn’t the school have to show its work?” She said she gave Sullivan some advice before her hearing: “Be yourself. Be courteous. Don’t let the other side dissuade you from your game. “Sullivan admitted a certain nervousness before the hearing, especially after the school district attorney files had set a number of precedents and were riddled with terminology she was unfamiliar with. But overall she was confident. “I have all the evidence,” she said. “I have all the facts. And nobody knows as well as I do. “All kinds of cases go to the 394th District Court, which has five counties roughly the size of the nine smallest states in the country. The court hears criminal cases, divorce proceedings and now a dispute over the school grade. Judge Roy B. Ferguson has a reputation for accepting the legal medley. His courtroom went viral in February when a video clip of a lawyer trapped behind a filter made him appear as a blurry white kitten in a zoom hearing that was booming on the internet. (“I’m not a cat,” said the lawyer.) Ferguson found the 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 trials in Poland. In a recent criminal case, when an audio complication attorney apologized, Ferguson replied, “You’re not a cat, so you’re one step ahead!” With Sullivan, he was patient and explained the procedure in a way that he shouldn’t have done with a professional. When she asked too broad a question, he encouraged her to narrow the scope. (He often runs bogus trials in high schools, including the state of Texas against Luke Skywalker.) Kelley Kalchthaler, a school district attorney, argued that Sullivan had not exhausted the district’s complaint process. “We don’t think the court has jurisdiction over this case,” she said, “and all parties should be dismissed.” She also objected to much of the evidence Sullivan tried to take, claiming it was hearsay or relevance to the case. Ferguson agreed in several cases. “All right, Ms. Sullivan, are you ready to provide evidence for your request?” Said Ferguson. “You bear the burden of this injunction here.” Sullivan laid out her case. “It’s not an accurate reflection of my high school career,” she said of her final report card, “so it has already done irreparable damage.” She wanted an independent review of honorary graduate grades. She didn’t get that on Friday. Ferguson decided the dispute would have to go through the school district grievance process. However, the case was not closed. If she was not satisfied with the result, the judge said, she could return to court. This article originally appeared in the New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company