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Large crowd rallies for GHS honor student
Community gathers to support student in valedictorian battle
Cody Stephens stands with his mother Valerie Stephens to acknowledge the applause of people attending a Justice for Cody Stephens Rally at Antioch Baptist Church on Sunday. - photo by Tom Reed

Several hundred people packed into Antioch Baptist Church on Sunday to throw their support behind a Gainesville High School senior they say is being denied the honor of becoming the school's first black valedictorian.

Speakers representing several organizations, including the NAACP and the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network, revved up the crowd with passionate remarks about Cody Stephens' achievements and the ongoing fight to give him proper recognition.

"We're going to give (the Gainesville school system) about 48 hours to make a decision and then we're coming back," said Derrick Boazman of WAOK-AM radio station in Atlanta.

"This is bigger than Cody. The disrespect of African-American people must stop and it has to stop today."

Stephens' supporters say that despite having the school's highest grade-point average, he has been named co-valedictorian.

"I don't understand why they are trying to cheat him out of an honor that he has earned," said his mother, Valerie Stephens, in an earlier statement. "I don't understand why they are not following their own procedure. What they have done to a child who has strived academically to do his very best is not right."

Initially, Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said only that school officials had followed guidelines in selecting the honor, and that she couldn't talk about the specifics of the process because student grades are private.

In an email sent to The Times on Saturday, Dyer said the parents of the other student "have given permission for us to share that the student earned all As in every high school course."

"Valerie Stephens has not given permission for us to discuss her son's grades," she added.

Both students have been students in Gainesville City Schools for their entire school career, Dyer said.

In another email on the matter, she said that the co-valedictorians resulted from one student who earned A's in every course credit for 36 units of credit and one who earned A's in all but one course, which was a B, and took 31.5 course credits.

"This resulted in the difference in GPA being less than one one-hundredth of a point," Dyer said.

"Using the procedure in place, this results in a co-valedictorian."

Stephens, who is bound for Emory University in Atlanta on a full scholarship, is Gainesville High's Student Teacher Achievement Recognition program winner.

To obtain that honor, high school seniors must have the highest score on the three-part SAT taken through November of their senior year and be in the top 10 percent or top 10 students of their class based on grade-point average, according to the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, which sponsors the statewide program.

Stephens also was celebrated at Sunday's rally for his accomplishments.

The 90-minute event was part church service, part emotional speeches by a stream of supporters. The family entered the sanctuary from a side room just as the event started and left the same way as it ended.

Cody Stephens and his father, Tony, sat still throughout the event on the front row, even as the crowd that had packed the church - including his mother — was on its feet shouting and singing.

Valerie Stephens was particularly emotional, her voice often raised as she spoke to the crowd.

"People who know me know I can lose my composure when I'm speaking about my child," she said. "You know you don't mess with my child."

She went on to maintain that her son is the school's "true valedictorian" and that the school system "is in direct violation of the guidelines they put in place.

"The bottom line is that you cannot change the rules in the middle of the process."

Toward the end of the rally, Cody got up briefly from his seat to stand with his mom and wave at the crowd.

After he sat down, she read a statement from her son, who initially thanked people for their support and prayers.

Then, he said, "Being valedictorian is a great honor and this is a situation I never expected to happen. The many issues surrounding the honor have taken away from the joy that comes with it. I can see the effect that it is having on not only me and my family, but also everyone around me.

"I hope this issue is resolved very soon, because, to be honest, it is a distraction to me and the school. I support my parents and I know that whatever they do, they do in my best interest because they love me."

The issue likely will come up again when the Gainesville City Board of Education meets on Feb. 21, starting at 6 p.m. The school board offices are at 508 Oak St.

"We'll be there en masse," said the Rev. Rose Johnson-Mackey, a Gainesville civil rights leader, speaking to the audience. "We are going to work together on this. ... We know that everything is going to be all right."

School board members Delores Diaz, Sammy Smith and David Syfan attended the rally.

Afterward, Diaz said the decision about the honor rests with school administrators.

"We cannot direct the leadership of the high school on what to do," she said. "... As a charter system, each of our schools is self-governed. Decisions as to extracurricular activities, honors or awards ... are left up to each school."

Diaz went on to say, "We trust that the principal (Chris Mance) will use his best judgment in making a decision based on all the facts that he has."

She said she believes all the board members have an opinion on the issue, "but I'm not at liberty to tell you what it is right now."