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.
Ms. 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 Ms. 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,” Ms. Sullivan said.
In Alpine, a town of roughly 6,000 people in Texas’s Big Bend Country, some who know Ms. 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 Ms. Sullivan’s mother and whose sons are close in age to Ms. 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,” Ms. Todd added. “Why doesn’t the school have to show their work?”
She said she offered some advice to Ms. Sullivan ahead of her hearing: “Be herself. Be respectful. Don’t let the other side get you off your game.”