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. Sylvia Saint

    The black girl has the highest GPA. She`s been wronged. Let the tort system determine how much. That`s what it exists for.

    I am disturbed that there are people on this blog want to change "the rules" when a non-white person has navigated the maze.

    Sociologists saw they same thing with T. Woods in golf. Woods dominated any all of a sudden they wanted to change the courses.

    The Government needs its debt limit increased – – we`ve done so repeatedly under every other president – – but under Mr. Obama, suddenly the rules change.

    This girl deserves the scholarly award. Give her what is due.

    July 26, 2011 at 9:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • U2

      She's still the valedictorian. She still has the #1 ranking in the class when asked by colleges. How has she been financially wronged? She hasn't. Period.

      July 26, 2011 at 10:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • jayman419

      Jeremy Mcgrath was utterly dominant in the sport of motorcross, and in many of the events I watched him in, the track designers made special efforts to disadvantage him with their layouts. He was white.

      Leveling the playing field is not always racially motivated.

      July 26, 2011 at 10:11 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Lincoln Mash

    Where did she get the $75K figure? Is that for emotional damage?

    @NC Singlemom, please note the difference between "tale" and "tail" and be sure to pass that knowledge along to your child.

    July 26, 2011 at 9:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • tifoso

      In most states, the amount stated in the prayer for damages section of a pleading applies only if the defendant defaults. If the case is tried, that $75K prayer is ignored. In many states, even if the defendant defaults, the plaintiff must demonstrate some measure of damages.

      July 26, 2011 at 10:31 pm | Report abuse |
  3. rDS

    I am not sure why the article says she was "snubbed". Snubbed indicates SHE had something bad happen to her. That did not happen. Someone else merely came up and joined her in the award. This young woman retains her well earned status.

    July 26, 2011 at 9:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • len

      No, she was snubbed. She should have been the ONLY one.

      July 26, 2011 at 10:12 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Lauren

    Bottom line – who ever has the highest GPA should be he valedictorian. If they have the identical GPA's as calculated to the 100th decimal place they should share and be co-valedictorian. If they are not the same, the highest GPA should be valedictorian.
    Thats the bottom line. Keep race out of the issue.

    1. If they find that someone with a lower GPA is made co-valedictorian, this young lady has a leg to stand on and her claim is valid.
    2. I have seen co-valedictorian before, but GPA's were identical to the 100th decimal place.

    My logic in undeniable. That's the way it's always been done. Any deviation is a cause for concern.

    July 26, 2011 at 9:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • tcp

      So you have been to every school in the nation and that's how it's ALWAYS done? You're wrong. GPA's are weighted based on AP and other things. IF it can be proven that black students were discouraged from taking AP classes, there is a leg to stand on. Not just for her, but for every minority student who has ever attended this school. SHAME on the minority teachers for not speaking up sooner.

      July 27, 2011 at 8:43 am | Report abuse |
  5. Annoyed

    Wow. That girl just needs to get over herself.

    July 26, 2011 at 9:57 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Sean C

    If anyone wants to see where White racism is going to take us then look no further than Norway July 22, 2011. Well, then, if you do want to look further back then stop at Germany from 1933 to 1945. Want to look further back? Are you brave enough white people? Where will this retrospective take us?

    July 26, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • babsie

      Wow. That is probably the most racist comment I have read in awhile. It is also completely ignorant of the fact that discrimination happens to this day all over the world (Not just by white people in Western Europe or the United States). Get a clue and please recognize yourself as the racist.

      July 26, 2011 at 10:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • PastySkinner

      So true Sean. Pasty skins are a blight to humanity as well as tied with Asians for a blight to mother nature. Luckily the world will be almost rid of them by the year 2030

      July 26, 2011 at 11:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • tcp

      Neither of your lame examples were race related. You are a bigot.

      July 27, 2011 at 8:44 am | Report abuse |
  7. Brett

    greedy

    July 26, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Report abuse |
  8. U2

    Well, if the advanced placement classes are weighted (ie worth 5 points instead of 4 for an 'A'), this scenario could happen. Student 1 get all A's and 1 B. Takes all available weighted courses and takes a study hall instead of an elective course. Student 2 makes all A's, taking the same amount of weighted courses...BUT is in, for instance, Band. No being in Band would only be worth 4 points for an 'A' thus dragging Student 2's overall average down below Student 1's overall by a fraction. Happened at my school. 4.28 gpa vs 4.26.

    July 26, 2011 at 9:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      BOTH girls took AP classes with the black girl taking at least AP Literature, Biology and Calculus–go back and read up, sport.

      July 28, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
  9. db

    This is an easy one for the courts. Get the records, count up the grades and make a just decision.

    July 26, 2011 at 9:59 pm | Report abuse |
  10. huh huh

    Doesn't matter. She's a single black mom, she's going nowhere.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • arnf

      She's going a lot farther than you, ya jerk...

      July 26, 2011 at 11:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Danielle

      I was raised by a single black mother who is a doctor and so am I. I take offense to your comment. Who are you to determine where someone is going? There are many people who are not single black mothers and made no contributions to society.

      July 28, 2011 at 12:11 am | Report abuse |
  11. yalesouth

    sounds like the racial ignorance here is amazing.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:06 pm | Report abuse |
  12. nick

    Yesterday, black people in Africa in the same mud hut 4000 years ago..

    July 26, 2011 at 10:07 pm | Report abuse |
  13. realy

    I think if you have a child while in high school you should automatically be disqualified from being valedictorian. It is a position to be looked up to. Getting knocked up isn't.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tom

      If you can't spell 'really' correctly nobody should pay attention to you.

      July 26, 2011 at 10:13 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Denese

    Sorry, but where I come from an unwed mother would not have gotten Valedictorian. It sounds like both students had the grades. The other person probably had the extracurricular activities as well (no pun intended) which put them over the top. If an unwed mother would have been held up as a role model at my high school, there would have been outrage at that too. Why didn't she and her family file a lawsuit sooner if the classes were slanted against minorities?

    July 26, 2011 at 10:08 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Plush

    What does her having been a "young mother" have to do with this story? In fact, if anything it should have disqualified her from the honor of being the valedictorian. But of course we need to paint a story that is stacked against her, she's black, a young mother, of course everyone's a racist there. It has to be the only reason for the change. It is always so easy to pull the race card to get the $75,000 pay-put.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Travis H.

      False; if anything, that proves what a good valedictorian she could be. Just because people make mistakes doesn't mean they cannot be academically excellent. Good for her; I hope she wins her suit against the district.

      July 26, 2011 at 10:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • GK

      I just don't get it, but I guess I never will, because I am white.So that makes me privileged ? Why bring race into this at all ? Can't the prize be shared equally or is it just about , I am black, I feel slighted and I have a attorney who is willing to play the race card for the money and recognition that it will give them ?

      July 26, 2011 at 10:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tony

      Why should her being a mother disqualify her? If anything, it is that more impressive that she earned the highest GPA while caring for a child.

      July 26, 2011 at 10:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • tourguide83

      I don't get it why people think She took care o the child.. where did she get that money? When a teenage daughter gets pregnant and give birth to a child, it is usually her mother will financially take care of the baby and her daughter. This is true across almost all races... The daughter side of family, usually her mother, suffers financially.

      July 27, 2011 at 12:29 am | Report abuse |
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