Dalee Sullivan looked straight ahead into her computer’s camera and started making her case to the judge. She referred to transcripts, emails and policies she had pulled from the student handbook at Alpine High School. The school, she contended, had made errors in tabulating grade-point averages: Classes and exams that should have been included were left out, and vice versa.
Sullivan had won Lincoln-Douglas debate tournaments and, in her freshman year, was a member of the mock trial team. But she is not a lawyer. She is 18, and she graduated from the lone public high school in the small West Texas town of Alpine just a week ago, which was the reason she was in court to begin with.
“This serves to prove that no matter the outcome of the GPA contest, and no matter how many times we had the school recalculate the GPA,” Sullivan told the judge during a hearing on Friday, the Alpine Independent School District “was going to make certain I could never be valedictorian, even if I earned it.”
School officials said she ranked third in her class. Sullivan disagreed.
She could not find a local lawyer who would agree to take on her case. A firm in Dallas 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 write a request for an injunction and represented herself in the 394th District Court of Texas.
She believed that her GPA could, in fact, have been higher than one or both of the students ahead of her, making her worthy of the title salutatorian or even valedictorian. She and her parents had protested her rank for the past month, and she claimed that the school intentionally did not invite her to an awards event where top students were honored.
The school district has said that it calculated her grades repeatedly, and that each time Sullivan still ranked third.
In a statement on Friday, school officials declined to discuss the allegations raised by Sullivan, saying the district was “not at liberty to discuss the individual student.”
“Although 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 the student’s concerns.”
It is not entirely unheard-of for disputes over top spots in high school graduating classes to escalate to litigation. The competition over such accolades can be an intense, even ruthless, zero-sum game. And in the fight to be valedictorian, there is more at stake than just bragging rights. In Texas, the highest-ranking high school graduates can receive free tuition for their first year at in-state public institutions.
Sullivan and her 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 “glitch” in the school’s tabulations. One of the students — with professional legal representation — filed for a restraining order and sought an injunction to block Pecos High School from naming its valedictorian.
After Sullivan could not get a lawyer, her parents were disappointed but willing to drop the matter. But she refused. She got advice and records from the family in the case in Pecos, using the petition in that case 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 tidy up the language.
“We aren’t even close to being lawyers,” Sullivan said.
In Alpine, a town of roughly 6,000 people in Texas’ Big Bend Country, some who know Sullivan said they were surprised she would take this on. There are other ways to spend one’s last summer before college. (She plans to attend the College of Charleston in South Carolina and major in biophysics with the aim of going into medicine.) But she had always been serious about school and a bit steely in her resolve.
“She’s already going to 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 in age to Sullivan. “She worked really hard for this, and I think all kids deserve to know where they fall 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 some advice to Sullivan ahead of her hearing: “Be herself. Be respectful. Don’t let the other side get you off your game.”
Sullivan conceded some nervousness before the hearing, especially after filings from the school district’s lawyers cited a slew of legal precedents and were peppered with terminology 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 know it.”
All sorts of cases land in the 394th District Court, whose jurisdiction covers five counties roughly equivalent in size to the country’s nine smallest states combined. The court hears criminal cases, divorce proceedings, and now a fight over high school grading.
Judge Roy B. Ferguson has a reputation for taking the judicial medley in stride.
His courtroom had a flash of viral fame in February when a video clip of a lawyer trapped behind a filter that made him appear to be a fuzzy white kitten in a Zoom hearing boomeranged around the internet. (“I’m not a cat,” the lawyer said.)
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 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 one step ahead!”
With Sullivan, he was patient and explained procedure in a way he would not have to with a professional. When she asked a question that was too broad, he encouraged her to narrow the scope. (He often presides over high school mock trials, among them, the State of Texas v. Luke Skywalker.)
Kelley Kalchthaler, a lawyer representing the school district, argued that Sullivan had not exhausted the district’s grievance process. “We don’t think the court has jurisdiction over this case,” she said, “and all parties should be dismissed.”
She also raised objections to much of the evidence Sullivan wanted to include, contending that it was hearsay or questioning the relevance to the case. In several instances, Ferguson agreed.
“All right, Ms. Sullivan, are you ready to present evidence in support of your request?” Ferguson said. “You bear the burden here for this temporary injunction.”
Sullivan laid out her case.
“It’s not an accurate 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 honor graduates’ grades. She did not get that on Friday. Ferguson ruled that the dispute needed to go through the school district’s grievance process. Still, the case was not closed. If she was not pleased with the outcome, the judge told her, she could come back to court.