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 went to the judge. She was referring to transcripts, emails, and guidelines drawn from the Alpine High School student handbook. The school, she claimed, had made mistakes in establishing the grade point average: classes and exams that should have been taken had been left out and vice versa. Sullivan had won Lincoln-Douglas debate tournaments and was a member of the mock trial team in her freshman year. But she is not a lawyer. She is 18 and just graduated from high school a week ago from the lonely public high school in the small town of Alpine, West Texas, so she was on trial first. “This is to prove that regardless of the outcome of the GPA competition and no matter how often we let the school recalculate the GPA,” Sullivan told the judge during a hearing on Friday, the Alpine Independent School District “will” be certain that I could never say goodbye even if I deserved it. ”Sign up for the New York Times School morning newsletter, said she was third in her class. Sullivan disagreed. She couldn’t find a local lawyer willing to take her case. A company in Dallas told her it would, but she estimated the case could cost her $ 75,000 – far more than she could afford. Instead, she found out how to file a restraining order and represented herself in the 394th Texas District Court. She believed that her grade point average might actually be higher than either or both of the students in front of her, which made her worthy of the title of salutator or even farewell speaker. She and her parents had protested her rank last month, claiming the school had deliberately not invited her to an awards ceremony honoring top students. The school district has said that it calculated their grades repeatedly and that Sullivan was still in third place every time. In a statement Friday, school officials declined to discuss Sullivan’s allegations, saying the district was “not free to speak about the individual student.” “While we respectfully disagree with the allegations in the lawsuit,” the statement said, “we take student and parent concerns very seriously and will continue to address student concerns.” It is not uncommon for high school graduation disputes 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 fight to say goodbye than just bragging rights. In Texas, senior high school graduates can get free tuition for their freshman year in state public institutions. Sullivan and her parents were inspired last year by a case in Pecos, Texas, about 160 miles from Alpine, where two students claimed to be top of the class amid confusion over a “bug” 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 farewell candidate. After Sullivan couldn’t get a lawyer, her parents were disappointed but willing to drop the matter. But she refused. She sought advice and records from the family in the Pecos case and in this case used the petition as a guide to write 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 about 6,000 people in Texas’s Big Bend Country, some who know Sullivan said they were surprised she’d 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 go to biophysics to study medicine.) But she had always taken school seriously and was a bit stubborn in her 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 Sullivan’s age. “She worked really hard for it, and I think all kids deserve to know where they end up in the pecking order.” “Children need to show their work,” added Todd. “Why doesn’t the school have to show their work?” She said she gave Sullivan some advice before her hearing: “Be yourself. Be polite. Don’t let the other side take you out of the game. ”Sullivan admitted a certain nervousness before the hearing, especially after the school district attorney files cited a number of legal precedents and were peppered 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 it as well as I know it. ”All possible cases end up in the 394th District Court, whose jurisdiction encompasses five districts roughly the size of the nine smallest states in the country put together. The court hears criminal cases, divorce proceedings and now a dispute over the school grade. Judge Roy B. Ferguson is known for handling the legal battle with flying colors. His courtroom had a flash of viral fame in February when a video clip of a lawyer was caught behind a filter that made him appear like a blurry white kitten in a zoom hearing boomerang 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 to the court’s website and accepted an invitation to discuss it at a symposium on remote judicial negotiations in Poland. When a lawyer recently apologized for audio complications in a criminal case, Ferguson replied, “You’re not a cat, so you’re one step ahead!” With Sullivan, he was patient and explained the process in a way he wouldn’t have to do with a professional. When she asked too broad a question, he encouraged her to narrow the scope. (He frequently 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 believe 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 add, claiming it was hearsay or questioning relevance to the case. Ferguson agreed in several cases. “All right, Ms. Sullivan, are you ready to produce evidence in support of your motion?” Ferguson said. “You bear the burden of this injunction here.” Sullivan set out her case. “It’s not an exact reflection of my high school career,” she said of her graduation certificate, “so it has already done irreparable damage.” She wanted an independent one Examination of the grades of honorary graduates. She didn’t get that on Friday. Ferguson ruled the dispute must go through the school district complaints process. However, the case was not closed. If she was not satisfied with the result, 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