Not Exactly What I First Thought

Who wouldn’t be outraged to hear that an Arkansas high school principal decided not to name a black girl valedictorian even though she’d earned the highest grade point average in her graduating class?  I was, but then I read this article, where a small detail popped out right at the end: the student was also a mother.

Blogs and online news sources are reporting the story as a racist incident, but I’m coming around to the thought that it had more to do with the student getting pregnant than with the color of her skin.  As one reader, commenting on an article on this site, said: “… this award is given to a student based on a host of criteria such as grades, outside activities and character. She blew it.”

Other details, buried in the above linked articles:

  • Previously, the school has had at least one other black valedictorian
  • Last year’s valedictorian was an Indian-American Sikh
  • The student body, misleadingly described as “predominantly white,” is 46% African-American
  • The student in question was in fact officially recognized as valedictorian, but the school named a white “co-valedictorian” who had a lower grade point average than the black student
  • The lawsuit filed by the black student and her mother seeks to have her named “sole valedictorian”

As usual, there is both more and less here than first meets the eye, and I’m persuaded the pregnancy is what led the principal to name a co-valedictorian, not race.  It couldn’t have been an easy decision, and the principal had to have known it would be portrayed by the media as racist.

Reporters and bloggers didn’t dig very deep on this story, but to be fair, some (by no means all, but some) of the mainstream press articles mention the fact that the student got pregnant and had a baby in her junior year.  So the information is there, and readers who don’t give up after the headline or first paragraph can dig it out.

Probably above my pay grade: is it fair for schools to include vague criteria like “outside activities and character” in selecting valedictorians?  Should a student’s sexual activity enter into the character equation, and if so, how to make apply it fairly in light of the fact that girls can’t hide maternity while boys can and often do hide paternity?

© 2011, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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