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. LolaS

    Suing for monetary damages for being a Co-Valedictorian? Give me a break. I hope a judge rules to take any valedictorian status away from her for wasting the court's time. She should be smart enough to know there are far more critical issues that our court system needs to focus on.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:52 am | Report abuse |
  2. Rian

    I agree with Larry. If she had the highest GPA, she should have been valedictorian. My problem is with suing for monetary gain. Is there a cash prize for being valedictorian? If you are trying to make a statement, sue for what is right and stop trying to make money.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:52 am | Report abuse |
  3. Jean

    I don't think there's any question that certain areas of the south still live by a set of ancient assumptions about race. It's easy to say that this girl should stop whining and move on. That's probably her best course of action because this legal fight, for not a lot of money, will greatly disrupt her life and alienate her from the white part of her community. However, it's only because of people like her who stand up for themselves that any change at all ever happens. By focusing attention on this, maybe the school will start to encourage ALL students to take the hardest classes they can and achieve more and stop making assumptions about ability based on race.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:53 am | Report abuse |
  4. John B

    My son gets straight A's in his gifted class. He takes college level classes in high school (yes he gets credits). He doesn't have the highest gpa in the school though. There are 2 or 3 children that get higher grades in classes he could handle while sleeping. They will get valedictorian and he won't be recognized. Now...should we sue?

    July 27, 2011 at 8:53 am | Report abuse |
    • IronicPenny

      Most schools correct for difficulty of classes in the GPA. My high school did one grade higher for honors and two for AP (so an A in a standard class = A- in honors – B+ in AP).

      July 27, 2011 at 8:57 am | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      Only if his GPA was higher than the rest. I don't agree with her decision to sue for money, however, I can understand why she is upset for not being the sole valedictorian.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:06 am | Report abuse |
  5. Sarah

    Did anyone notice that the article said Ms. Wimberly was a young mother? It also said the students had to be in school consistantly during the last two semesters of high school. If she had her child during her senior year and was away from school it seems as if she would be ineligable to be valedictorian. Either way, congratulations to her for finishing school!

    July 27, 2011 at 8:54 am | Report abuse |
    • The Guy

      'Cause thats not racist or anything...

      July 27, 2011 at 8:59 am | Report abuse |
    • Betsaroo

      Perhaps she should be given an extra half point for raising a child while earning the highest GPA int he school. Truancy laws are established to keep those in school who repeatedly skip school and are failing out, not to punish the spar test one of the lot. I think they used that as an excuse to get their way and prove a point.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:01 am | Report abuse |
    • walter

      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.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:06 am | Report abuse |
    • kasey

      Walter, thank you for clarifying the situation with facts.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:10 am | Report abuse |
    • Sarah

      @Betsaroo Yes, lets give an extra half point for her raising a child and getting a good GPA and in turn punish the rest of the students for keeping their legs closed!

      July 27, 2011 at 9:16 am | Report abuse |
  6. MeoMio

    All I can say to the young lady is "Congratulations! You Go Girl!". She made Valedictorian which is not exactly the norm for most students. Looks like she is involved with a backwards school system or something.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:54 am | Report abuse |
  7. John

    Kymberly Wimberly, ROFL, where the hell do they come up with these names for their kids?

    July 27, 2011 at 8:54 am | Report abuse |
    • cyndi

      Let's see; Bristol, Trigg, Track; hmmm, my guess is that she probably got ahold of Palin's baby book of names....

      July 27, 2011 at 9:01 am | Report abuse |
    • Draconis

      It's like Julia Gulia from the Wedding Singer movie!

      July 27, 2011 at 9:03 am | Report abuse |
    • Osama from Canada

      ya, not everyone wants to name their kids John or Muhammad...

      July 27, 2011 at 9:05 am | Report abuse |
    • AnGie

      Everyone can't be as original as JOHN the A**Hole.......Having 5 kids is better than in-breeding John.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:06 am | Report abuse |
    • bburn

      Are you going to comment on her achievement or make racist comments. Ignorance and hatred equals stupidity.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:06 am | Report abuse |
    • JoeShmoe

      Don't be jealous John... I know it was very tough for you to get that 1.5 GPA! Work harder next time! Also, try not to talk too much... it lets your mental deficiencies come out :-S

      July 27, 2011 at 9:07 am | Report abuse |
    • Marcell

      John, you a racist idiot.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:09 am | Report abuse |
  8. Preston

    Co-Valedictorian? As far as I knew, that was only used if the students in question GPA's matched exactly. If one of the students were off by even the smallest amount, the would effectively take you out of the running for the honor. I mean seriously if its the World Series and the Red Sox have a one run lead at the end of the game, are they Co-World Series Champs? Answer people is no. They won bottom line. Give this young lady the honor she worked hard for. Now as for the money, that is alot to be asking for, it's not like someone defamed her character or anything like that. She won't have nightmares five years down the line, so she should not need that kind of monetary compensation. And both sides calling the other side racist in comment posts does absolutely nothing for anyone, but show your ultimate immaturity and disrespect. We all have to live here, so why are we making it so bad for ourselves?

    July 27, 2011 at 8:55 am | Report abuse |
    • walter

      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. She sshould have come in second

      July 27, 2011 at 9:08 am | Report abuse |
    • Cedar Rapids

      Of course he said the same thing would have occurred if reversed, its easy for him to say that isnt it?

      July 27, 2011 at 9:16 am | Report abuse |
  9. RweEqual

    We are talking about the south. Nothing has change really in the south they still cling to there ways of how they feel about blacks. This same thing happen to my wife when she was in highschool back in 95. She had the highest GPA in her class and they gave it to a white student and this happen in South Carolina.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:56 am | Report abuse |
    • kasey

      Honestly, this probably had less to do with race and more to do with the fact that she is an unwed mother. THAT is still taboo in some places, and in the past she wouldn't have been allowed to graduate with her class at all. She would have gone to a different school.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:01 am | Report abuse |
  10. Just sayin

    How is it that a black woman can even be heard talking loud in a picture? WE CAN ALL HEAR YOU.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:56 am | Report abuse |
    • Tonya

      Let me explain why ... You can hear a black female, even in a picture, because black women command attention. Your comment proves the point, thank you.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:09 am | Report abuse |
  11. Frog Prince

    "Wimberly's mother, Molly Bratton, works as the McGehee district's media specialist" Then I would suggest the silly racist publicity she is garnering shows she is doing her job............and if her daughter was truly smart she should have kept her legs closed...............

    ...............

    July 27, 2011 at 8:56 am | Report abuse |
  12. robbie

    you have not the right to the money but if proof on the complaint you should begiven it if the party at hand is lynning then god will deal them a bad deal god bless you all

    July 27, 2011 at 8:58 am | Report abuse |
  13. Mike

    Even if it's not racially motivated it's wrong.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:58 am | Report abuse |
  14. Susan

    Hard to believe that in 2011 discrimination against minorities still exists. Because of Kymberly's decision to "fight" she will endure a lot of negative comments and most likely actions to her and her family. But standing up for this important issue is critical. Discrimination will be eliminated by 'death by a thousand duck bites". This is one more "duck bite". Good Luck and God Bless Kynberly.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:58 am | Report abuse |
    • kasey

      I'd be willing to bet this has less to do with her race and more to do with her being a teen mother. Not exactly the role model you want to hold up for the other kids. Not saying I think it's right, but in the past she woulnd't have been at the school, she'd have been in an alternative school for young mothers, regardless of race. But, hey, it's easier to call the race car than point out you were irresponsible and got pregnant. That seems to be okay these days, with shows like Teen Mom giving so much publicity to the problem.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:06 am | Report abuse |
    • walter

      Quack!!! 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.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:10 am | Report abuse |
  15. lahunjah

    @ blacks, continue to speak out against racism from whites, as they have an extensive history on being racist against EVERYONE. They are on perpetual probation. Currently, they are trying to create a climate where they can be openly discriminatory AGAIN and blacks say nothing for fear of being labeled. It's simply another survivalist ploy. Justice is justice; and that's what it's all about. Bravo young lady for standing up!

    July 27, 2011 at 8:59 am | Report abuse |
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