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. John

    I think the GPAs should be disclosed to the courts and the man who decided to appoint a co-valedictorian should have to explain how he can appoint both as valedictorian. If she is highest, then the man should resign pure and simple. Anyone who still supports the man and works for the school system should also resign.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim in Auburn

      It is pretty simple. According to the handbook it says that someone will not be penalized for taking more credits. The other person had .5 credits more. So if one had 100 credits and a 4.0 and the other had 100.5 credits and a 3.97, then they would remove the lowest .5 credits from the lower one. If they both wind up with a 4.0 with their highest 100 credits, then they both are the valedictorian.

      July 26, 2011 at 10:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      Anyone who supports him should resign? You have got to be kidding me.

      July 26, 2011 at 10:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • 12-21-12

      John Jim is right, and besides...give em an inch...!

      July 26, 2011 at 10:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Geez

      It sounds like a pretty clear cut case of Kym being wrong... If she doesnt understand why two Valedictorians were chosen... its amazing she was in the running. Seems easy to me.

      July 26, 2011 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • nickfr21

      So if someone took shop, keyboarding, algebra, and weightlifting, they should be evaluated the same as someone taking AP calc, chemistry, and computer programming? Im not saying that is the case here, but come on... be realistic. There is reasoning behind it.

      July 26, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim in Auburn

      I forgot to end my first post with the following.

      If the numbers do not add up to it being a tie after taking out the lower .5 credits, then he should definately resign or be fired.

      Not sure how they take into consideration the AP classes. Since the handbook says they will not be penalized if they take AP classes, how do you correct for that? I guess maybe they could have an A get 5 point, B 4 points, C 3 points... That way you get an extra grade point if you take the AP classes?

      July 26, 2011 at 10:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • tourguide83

      Whoever lose, especially if this black girl loses, should pay for all the court fees.

      July 27, 2011 at 12:32 am | Report abuse |
  2. LACE

    Regardless of the outcome, Kymberly should be proud of herself for overcoming adversity still coming out on top of her class.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gimmeabreak

      Overcoming "adversity?" What adversity?? Do you mean the BABY that she had? I seriously doubt anyone held a gun to her head and forced her to have it. The only thing she was smart about was her comment that blacks should stick to sports and regular-course levels. She got that right. Send her to Somalia so she can she how ADVERSE things can be.

      July 26, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • 12-21-12

      Gimmeabreak is right!

      The only gun held to her wasn't pointed at her head!

      The only thing she was "SMART" about...

      Wait a minute Gimmeabreak...

      I'm beginning to think you're a ****** lover!

      But I agree with you that blacks are ONLY good at sports.

      Send them all to Somalia so they can she how ADVERSE things can be.

      July 27, 2011 at 12:16 am | Report abuse |
  3. JoJo

    We don't even call ourselves American.Seems we're all playing for different teams.I see this as being a sad last lesson for our young people heading out on their own.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • 12-21-12

      Some of them just need to know their place! That's all! Her skin color does NOT make her special in any way, shape or form! It is actually a curse!

      July 27, 2011 at 12:18 am | Report abuse |
  4. Bob

    This is common at many high schools. When students take different numbers of credits or have a different mix of weighted/advanced classes, students with all A's can end up with different GPAs.

    This happened to me when I was in high school. I took one more advanced class than my co-valedictorians and had a marginally higher GPA. How did I handle it? I let it go. There is no need to make a lawsuit out of a .001 difference in GPAs. Sharing the stage with another person is not a hardship.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jon

      Exactly. High school GPA means little after college anyways.

      July 26, 2011 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • TG

      Obviously you're missing the point of the suit. It's not just that it happened to her, it's the fact that school has created a culture in which most if not all black students there feel or are treated unfairly. Yes, it's a big deal. If it wasn't, then they would have changed their minds and there would not be a lawsuit.

      July 26, 2011 at 10:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tessa

      That may be true of the valedictorian in this case. All the same though, bringing attention to the favoritism in encouraging students to take an AP might be a cause worth fighting for. Unfortunately, you don't get a lot of attention unless something drastic is done. Even if she loses, she's won I think. The school will have to mind its P's and Q's to avoid a PR disaster, which might mean change for her high school or her entire school district.

      July 26, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim in Auburn

      You were robbed. Definately think that if they weighted the AP classes then an A in the AP class is worth more than in the regular class. So if you wound up with a higher GPA because of the AP classes, you should stand above the ones that took regular classes and got all A's. They should have taken more AP classess if they were getting all A's.

      July 26, 2011 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse |
  5. innersixx

    “That’s what were good at that that’s what we should stick to – that’s the mentality of McGehee.” Either she really did say "were" instead of "we're " or cnn made another typo. Any guesses?

    July 26, 2011 at 10:15 pm | Report abuse |
  6. jayman419

    Racism is stupid.

    Most people are a$$h0les. So why judge someone based only on the color of their skin or their religion when you can take two minutes to get to know them and find a much more valid reason to dislike them?

    July 26, 2011 at 10:18 pm | Report abuse |
  7. no thanks

    When I was in high school, we had 40 valedictorians. Only 10 of them were actually worthy of it. Why? The other 30 just padded their GPA with regular non honors classes, and got lumped with the actual achievers. She's probably one of those bandwagoners.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Jason

    It sounds like the white student took harder courses than this and as such had higher weights placed on AP classes. That's standard practice in high school, but I'd hope this school used a publicized and consistent formula in GPA calculations. I'm having a hard time understanding why 75K is just.....that's probably this schools annual budget...

    July 26, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • 12-21-12

      I hate to repeat myself, but...give 'em an inch...!

      July 27, 2011 at 12:08 am | Report abuse |
  9. Big Fish

    Our society apparently has no issue with white/black co-anchors on local tv news, why not as valedictorians.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • 12-21-12

      I'm just glad Brian Williams is on Monday-Friday, I don't even watch Lester Holt on the weekends!

      July 27, 2011 at 12:07 am | Report abuse |
  10. Truth and Light

    Who freaking cares?? I'm sick of everybody (whites AND blacks) hating on everything and anything about the other just to try and feel some sense of selfworth. No matter what each group does, this country has a sickness of hatred weaved into the fabric of its very existence. THIS is why it is totally doomed to fail, fail, fail.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • 12-21-12

      You must be black!

      July 27, 2011 at 12:06 am | Report abuse |
  11. Ken R.

    In professional or Olympic sports, the stock market, interest rates or even computer technology performance decimal points are everything. This is no different. If you anyone who has commented were offered a CD with an interest rate that was .03% higher then another you would jump on it. A difference of .03 or .05 is still second place!

    July 26, 2011 at 10:27 pm | Report abuse |
  12. FaolRua

    The real question is who saddled this young woman with the name "Kimberly Wimberly"?

    July 26, 2011 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • 12-21-12

      Yeah, that was a sad/bad mistake! Maybe her name was changed to protect "the innocent"!?!

      July 27, 2011 at 12:04 am | Report abuse |
    • 12-21-12

      Maybe her real name is Laquanda Jackson, but Kimberly Wimberly sounded better???

      July 27, 2011 at 12:05 am | Report abuse |
  13. Honest Doug

    aclu

    July 26, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Juan Garcia

    My high school had two valedictorians as well, even though one had two hundredths of a GPA higher than the other, because the latter had taken two extra AP courses. Honors/AP classes should be taken into account, and if they followed the Handbook then this an open and shut case. The one thing that should be investigated is her claim that blacks were not told of the harder classes. Also, 75k? How did she arrive at that number? Regardless, she should celebrate her achievement and I wish her the best in her college career.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Honest Doug

    why do black people always sue?

    July 26, 2011 at 10:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • 12-21-12

      I totally agree 100%! You don't see white people suing...just these blacks!

      July 27, 2011 at 12:03 am | Report abuse |
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