July 26th, 2011
04:56 PM ET

Valedictorian sues school: Was she snubbed because of race?

A recent high school graduate from Arkansas is suing her school district, claiming it refused to recognize her as the school's sole valedictorian because she is black.

Kymberly Wimberly, 18, earned the highest grade point average in McGehee Secondary School's 2011 graduating class. She did so as a young mother, according to the complaint she submitted to the U.S. District Court for Arkansas' Eastern District. She was named the school's valedictorian and then later given co-valedictorian status with a white student who had lower grades, her complaint says.

Kymberly Wimberly

No legal response has been filed by lawyers for the school district or any other school or district representatives, according to court officials. Superintendent Thomas Gathen said he has yet to be served with any sort of court documents. Because of this, Gathen said he was unable to comment on several individual issues brought up in Wimberly's complaint.

"The issue that someone’s trying to paint is that this was a racially motivated," Gathen told CNN. "That wasn’t an issue with (the co-valedictorians). This is strictly an academic issue and a policy issue, not a racial issue."

Wimberly is seeking punitive damages of $75,000 and recognition as the sole valedictorian of her class. Wimberly's complaint also argues the McGehee school district, in southeastern Arkansas not too far from the Mississippi River, habitually withheld access to challenging classes from black students.

Wimberly said students were told at a schoolwide assembly that advance placement classes were very rigorous and that only those who really thought they would thrive with intense workloads should elect to take them. Then, individual students were taken aside and told that the classes really weren’t all that bad, she told CNN. The overwhelming majority of those students were white, she said, adding that she was the only black student in her AP literature class and one of two in calculus.

“Black students are meant to stay in regular course levels and mostly play sports,” Wimberly said. “That’s what were good at that that’s what we should stick to - that’s the mentality of McGehee.”

Wimberly said she had one teacher, for AP biology, who encouraged all students to take the class. Its racial makeup was half black, half white, and was more reflective of McGehee's student population, which is 46%  black.

The case has been gaining increasing attention since Courthouse News Service reported on it Monday.

According to the complaint, Wimberly's mother, Molly Bratton, works as the McGehee district's media specialist. On May 10, Bratton learned from the school's counselor that her daughter had earned the top grade point average in her class. After sharing the exciting news with her daughter, she overheard someone in the school's copy room saying the accolade would cause "a big mess," according to the complaint.

Later that day, the complaint says, Bratton confirmed her daughter's status with Superintendent Gathen.

Then things began to unravel, according to Wimberly.

The next day, the school's principal, Darrell Thompson, told Bratton that he had decided to appoint another student, who was white, as a co-valedictorian. CNN was unable to reach Thompson for comment.

The complaint says Thompson attributed the decision to something in the student handbook, though the complaint says he did not list a specific policy.

In regards to recognition of a valedictorian, the McGehee handbook says  that "students must be continuously enrolled at McGehee High School the last two semesters without transferring during this time to be considered in class ranking or eligible for valedictorian or salutatorian status."

The handbook says students will be given the same class rank only if their grades are the same, but in deciding class rank, students with lower GPAs who are taking more or harder classes will not be penalized. Gathen said the Wimberly's co-valedictorian had half a credit more than Wimberly and the difference in the students' GPAs was .03 or .05. Gathen said the outcome would have been the same were the situations reversed.

"I would have made the same decision," he said. "I was the one who made the ultimate decision."

Wimberly said she knew of students sharing the valedictorian position in the past, but only if their GPAs were the same, “down to the very last decimal point.”

When she found out that her daughter would have a co-valedictorian, Bratton called Gathen, who told her he had OK'd Thompson's decision, court documents state. The school's counselor had already sent out a news release to the local community about Wimberly's achievement, but the school then sent out an additional one about the co-valedictorian.

Bratton sought to bring up the issue at a school board meeting but was told by Gathen that it would have to wait for a meeting after the school's graduation ceremony because of an error in the form she filled out, according to the documents.

In addition to these details of the case, the complaint also claims that the district places more emphasis on challenging its white students than its black ones.

"African-American students were not encouraged to take Honors or Advanced Placement classes," the complaint says. "Caucasian students had to almost opt out (of advanced classes)."

Wimberly said she was lucky in that she had parents who would support her academic pursuits, even if many of her teachers would not.

“(Other students’) parents aren’t as active as mine,” Wimberly said. “Think about children who don’t have parents who are active in the school."

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Filed under: Arkansas • Civil Rights • Courts • Education • Justice • Race • U.S.
soundoff (2,063 Responses)
  1. Rene

    It IS Arkansas

    August 12, 2011 at 11:56 am | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Marshall

    I honestly think that what the administrator did was legitimate, however it was unpopular. If 2 students have nearly identical GPA's (being that a 99.00 and a 99.03 are very similar), you cannot discount the student with the lower GPA because he/she had 1/2 or 1 more credit than the higher GPA student. If the student with the lower GPA decided to drop an AP class during the final semester and decided to take a regular class, he or she would most likely have gotten a higher grade and subsequently raised the GPA .03-.05 points. Both students would then be equal. When I was in high school I graduated 9/20. Since then I have gotten an AS degree, BA degree, and will get my MPA degree next fall. While I understand this may be frustrating, as long as the school can justify how the co-valedictorian process was established by stating a school policy, then the school and school board is safe. As far as $75,000, doubt she will get that.

    August 14, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • CHIKENISH

      How could you be more wrong? If the student who dropped the AP class in the last semester's (we'll say studentB) GPA is lower then it is said students own fault! You should not punish student A, who by the way obviously stuck it out til the end, by making her share her honor, no matter race, age, creed, or color!! This article ticks me off and the comments you people are making are ridiculous to the point of no return!! If the GPA of student A is 99.03 and the GPA of student B is 99.00, then student A has earned the honor! PEROD!! Obviously, 99.03 is MORE than 99.00!! Duh!!

      August 15, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Jahacopo2221

    While I sympathize with Miss Wimberley's position, I can also see the other side of this issue. When I was in high school, one of my very good friends was knocked from the valedictorian position because she took band class all four years of high school. Though she got straight A's in all of her classes, she still ended up with a lower GPA because of band. This happened because band class was not weighted (like advanced and advanced placement classes are/were). So an 'A' in band was worth less than an 'A' in a weighted class. The young lady who ended up being valedictorian got around this system by only taking weighted classes her last two years of high school. She graduated with two fewer credits than my friend, but because her numerical GPA was higher, she was made valedictorian. My friend accepted this, realized it would shake out like that about midway through our junior year, and she and her parents made the decision to continue with band and not to make a fuss. However, in this situation, we don't know if that is what was the case with the co-valedictorian that had half of a credit more (and a GPA just a couple hundredths lower). It certainly sounds very similar, and perhaps her parents did want to kick up a fuss (and maybe that's where the 'huge mess' comment that the mother overheard came from.

    Here's the Math for those who can't figure out how this would happen.
    Weighted classes: A=5, B=4, C=3, D=2, F=0 Unweighted classes: A=4, B=3, C=2, D=1, F=0
    Student A takes 14 unweighted classes (all A's) and 12 weighted classes (all A's). GPA= 116/26=4.4615
    Student B takes 16 unweighted classes (all A's) and 12 weighted classes (all A's). GPA= 124/ 4.4285

    So you see, even though student A took fewer classes, and the exact same weighted classes as student B (and all with the same 'A' grade results), student A ends up valedictorian at the expense of student B. Is it fair to punish student B for taking more classes, even though they weren't weighted?

    August 15, 2011 at 11:45 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jahacopo2221

      Realized I left off something: In the line with the calculation of Student B's GPA it should read 124/28 = 4.4285

      August 15, 2011 at 11:47 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Carol Snyder

    Do you think they would have thought this hard about it had they originally named the white student valedictorian?

    August 16, 2011 at 9:44 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • LOL

      Parents Threaten To Sue LA School District For Not Naming Daughter Valedictorian

      June 26, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Carol Snyder

    I think she is suing for too little. The lawyer gets 1/3 of it, and that barely leaves enough for four years of college at a good school. Hopefully she will get a full scholarship somewhere and she can put this money aside for her next step in life. I wish her the best! The school needs to learn a lesson and this may be the only way they can learn it – via their pocketbook! Without the suit, they would probably just continue on their merry way – and unwilling to have a valedictorian who is an African-American.

    August 16, 2011 at 9:53 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Megan

    I need more information on their GPA's and how many credit hours they took. If the white student took more hours, they would have a lower GPA due to how AP classes work; even if they got an "A" in the class. Having more credit hours actually dilutes your GPA. Many schools will account for that and take the extra credit off one student to make it comparable to the other student. It is very possible and very likely that these two students actually have the same exact GPA when you hold credit hours constant. People should take that into account before they start speculating discrimination. It could be that the counselor wasn't taking this extra credit issue into consideration when she told her she had the highest GPA. I was co-valedictorian with two other students in my class. We made sure we took the same amount of credit hours so we wouldn't have this issue.

    August 18, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • pattic

      Taking more credit hours does not dilute your GPA. The "A" stands for "average." If you take 4 classes and get an A in each (A=4 points) you earn 16 points. 16 dived by 4 = 4; your GPA is 4.0 or A. If you take 5 classes and earn an A in each, your GPA is still 4.0 (4 x 5 = 20 / 5 = 4.0). The inequality comes in when a person who is taking EASIER classes earns an equal or higher grade than one taking harder classes and therefore ends up with a higher GPA.

      August 19, 2011 at 7:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • george

      Many school districts give extra points for advanced placement or honors classes, to reduce any penalty for the harder classes. I don't know about this school district in particular, but my school district assigns 6 points (on a 4-point scale) for an "A" in an advanced placement class, 5 points for an "A" in an honors class, and the usual 4 points for an "A" in a regular class – because of that, someone with mostly A's and a few of these advanced or honors classes can have a GPA greater than 4.0 (My valedictorian had something crazy like a 5.1).

      August 23, 2011 at 10:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • creoleboi4friend

      All of the ifs, maybes and "it could have beens" are ridiculously far fetched and stray away from the obvious. I think that it's obvious that something really needs to change within the district and it may not be the best place for normal people to be educated, taking their current decision makers into consideration. Sounds like a bunch of "Self-Defined Christians" to me. What a shame? If that darrell thompson (dt) were at one of my schools...I would carefully remove his existence to the unemployment line...right where it belongs.

      To Ms. Kymberly Wimberly...please know that as an older, educated and successful African-American, it is best to observe this behavior and move on but never forget it, there's more to come as your matriculation process becomes more valuable to you. I've learned that it's worth it because you'll see them again as they will you. I was born in that area, just outside of Pine Bluff and trust me...you'll learn that they're not so smart. You'll leave their league quickly and they will be irrelevant to you...trust me. Congrats and I'm waiting on you at the top "Sista"!!! This really brought back some memories for me and I'm smiling in remembrance of how simple-minded people can be...SMH & LOL

      November 25, 2011 at 12:36 am | Report abuse |
    • Will S

      How to get punished for taking extra classes (which the plaintiff did not):

      Regular class = 4 points
      AP class = 5 points
      Take 3 classes (1 AP): (5 + 4 + 4) /3 GPA = 4.33
      Take 4 classes (1 AP): (5 + 4 + 4 + 4) /4 GPA = 4.25

      February 25, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
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