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. Kelly

    Always crying racist... always funny.

    July 27, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • krys

      Always crying racist? Really? Your comment is funny.

      July 27, 2011 at 5:41 pm | Report abuse |
  2. sciihs1958

    Sounds like she wants extra points for being a young mother..................

    July 27, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • suckit

      They already get bonus points, its called a PELL GRANT..

      July 27, 2011 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Neal Kelley

    So you are saying that its ok for a black person to discriminate even if they discriminate against there own kind. It does not matter what color the discesion making person was. Unfair is unfair! Maybe he does not like black women.. maybe he just does not like his own kind... what ever his issue is... There can only be ONE. Unless it is a tie.

    July 27, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Linda

    I think a number of you guys did not read the article thoroughly! The african american girl did take at least one AP class. But if I remember correctly people who took honors classes were put on a different scale i.e. 5.0 so they should have been equals so if one was 0.5 and the other was 0.3 the one with the higher GPA should have been the sole valedictorian. Now I don't know if this was racist but discrimination was committed in this situation and at minimum she was wronged and a apology is warranted.

    July 27, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Tiggity

    Read the article, Rob, she did take AP classes. And it's "valedictorian," not "valevictorian," surprised you missed that one because CNN has spell-check. Maybe you should learn to read and spell before you make anymore comments on articles.

    July 27, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Aaron

    If 46% of the school is African American and there is only 1 African American student in an English class then there appears to be some sort of problem. I'm not quite sure about the issue of her status as valedictorian. The problem is that she has a higher GPA than her "Co-valedictorian" which should be all that matters in determining the top of the class. I know some people say she had less AP credit than the other kid but she had 1/2 less credit according to this article, that's not a game changing amount at all.

    July 27, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  7. suckit

    If you did NOT take AP or HONORS classes then you are NOT the highest grade. Get over it and put your card back in your pocket..

    July 27, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  8. SophieCat

    Kymberly Wimberly, this is ONLY THE BEGINNING OF YOUR STRUGGLE. For the rest of your life, you're going to have to work twice as hard, to be thought HALF AS GOOD. Luckily this will not be difficult for you, as most white people aren't nearly as intellingent and hard-working as you are, nor are they accustomed to being slighted or passed-over solely due to skin color.

    The fact that you are BLACK, and a WOMAN, means you will always have to struggle. Get used to it. It's not right, it's not fair, and it IS what it IS.

    You had an IDIOT for a Principal. You will have IDIOTS for supervisors and managers and business owners and neighbors for the REST OF YOUR LIFE.

    GET USED TO IT, but DON'T LET IT DEFINE WHO YOU ARE.

    They're IDIOTs. There's no cure for that.

    July 27, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • id

      The Truth is a bitter pill to swallow, thanks for dishing it out...

      July 27, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Realist

      I smell a racist...

      July 27, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • rob

      Well, actually no. If you are a minority you really only have to be bare minimum qualified, you can not be fired due to Affirmited Action, and if they do ,you just pull race card and sue. You can work half as hard as a white person, you will never have to pay a penny to studen loans since black women get cash/scholarships/grants handed to them out the wazuuu. So know this, you will be picked 1st, even when you are not worthy, based entirely on your skin color. Everyone will know this, and will resent you for it. You will get where you get in life based not on your personal merit, but on the color of your skin, and that will eat away at you your whole life, and make you a bitter person.

      July 27, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Adooks

      Spot on!

      July 27, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Adooks

      Spot on, Sophie.

      July 27, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • effie

      well said SophieCat!!!!

      Bravo!

      July 27, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Realist

      Here, here... well said Rob

      July 27, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • RTC

      Spoken like a true welfare recipient.

      July 28, 2011 at 5:55 am | Report abuse |
  9. Guest

    If you read the article you would have seen that she in fact did take AP classes.

    July 27, 2011 at 5:07 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  10. shakingmyhead

    I am disgusted with the remarks made by some of the peolple here. This girl is fighting for her rights and all you all can talk about is her having a child. At least she is raising her child and still had a high enough GPA to be at the top of her class. I see nothing but a bunch of haters and to all of those that have something egative to say about her get a LIFE bring up your GPA when that is done comment.

    July 27, 2011 at 5:08 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  11. SophieCat

    Big D Wrote: How about the african american sports stars, the african american RAP stars, the african american talk show hosts who make millions and don't even know basic math and do not even have a high school diploma nor a GED??? Let's not make this a race thing. Let's face it, us african americans need to stand up and stop killing each other and focus our energy on educating our youth and until this happens, much to my dislike, it only fuels the division that exists and further divides our cultures.
    *********************************************************
    Uh-huh. Which "african american sports stars, the african american RAP stars, the african american talk show hosts" are you talking about? Oh right, there's just HUNDREDS of 'em! Thousands, even, right? Get real.

    July 27, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Rev

    This kind of thing happens all the time, a non-white person either gets into a school over a white person or gets a job over an equally qualified white person or gets scholarships over a white person who has a better GPA than the non-white but they can get away with that because they call it "affirmative action!" Does anybody else think that is wrong?

    July 27, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  13. SophieCat

    "Valevictorian"? You're an IDIOT.

    July 27, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  14. SophieCat

    Rob, are you drunk again?

    July 27, 2011 at 5:19 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Ron

    See if I have this correct. An unwed teenage mother not only takes AP courses, but is able to have the highest GPA. She is being called ungrateful, poor role model, lazy and whiny. What the hell is this? This young lady is an excellant example of achievement "in spite of". Why should she have to "share" her accolade? Why must she be accosted because she has a child? How many virgins are out there? The black principle who made that decision in my opinion has no guts is comparable to an oreo cookie. If that sounds racist so be it. Bachman, a presidential contender talks about the merits of the slave "family", Palin praises our "founding fathers" for their anti-slavery work. Slave families were illegal andmany of our ff were slaveholders. I do not digress. Just pointing out how engrained racism is in America. Hyprocricy reigns. Ief Ms. Wimberly was white, would she be asked to share her glory. For the record, there are plenty oif white unwed mothers. Are they held in shame? Racism is the American way!!!

    July 27, 2011 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse | Reply
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