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. The guy

    Get over the race thing. Its life some things just dont go your way. You're supposed to be the smartest person in your school and you cant figure that out! the race card is worn out folks. But everyone continues to pull it. People doing things like this puts focus on race but I guess you just not bright enough to see that maybe they should down grade you again for being ignorant to the way society works; if you paid attention in any history class you would know only bad comes from singleing your self out and thats exactly what you have done. If there is any validity to your case you might win the money but your always going to be known as the girl who can't handle the real world.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Norman

    sorry yayas, but Rex is right-blacks alwasy score much lower than whites and asians on tests-its fact. I read the story and looks like a cash grab by some blacks who think theyre owed something...they dont have a case

    July 26, 2011 at 10:44 pm | Report abuse |
  3. reshalef he

    "The race card story is old & has been beaten to death. Who cares?", is what one commentor said. Those that care are the ones being treated unfairly when there is no other obvious reasons for actions of disparity. It would be interesting if whites can swap places with Blacks for 24 hours and be on the receiving end of many of the actions and deal with the same sentiments they emit towards others. Maybe they would understand how in many instances the race card continues to come up. Many Blacks (I believe) try very hard not to bring race into scenarios of unequality. However, when all other logical options are explored with regard to unequal treatment and they are told "no, that's not why....", the last thing considered is "is this or that done because I'm Black?".. As a result of the history of this country and the way Blacks have and are still treated, it's the reason of last resort when all else doesn't make sense.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Laotzu12

      I would LOVE to trade places for 24 hours. The opportunity to get in to college with lower scores, the opportunity to get federal student aid only for being in a certain race, to have entrance standards lowered to graduate program, to have employers actively recruit me regardless of my credentials, to get offered better salaries because my race is a valuable commodity? Sadly, I had to work for everything I've achieved. To have all the breaks just given to me for no reason other than my melanin content would have made things much easier. And then, on top of it all, when I don't get exactly what I want, I can scream "racism!" and get cash rewards! What's not to love?

      July 26, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Knucklehead

      I grew up in a religious minority, in the Salt Lake Valley. I won't even compare that to what blacks and other minorities experience, but the thing I learned is how subtle discrimination becomes. It works its way into everything–like graduation honors. When I lived there even the weatherman made references to Mormon events routinely. It got to the point where you wanted to scream "I'm not a f-ing Mormon!!" Thing is, nobody ever tried to hold me back because I wasn't Mormon...it was just irritating. This is an outrage. This shouldn't happen in America. See how we are? See how we really are?

      July 26, 2011 at 10:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Knucklehead

      ...or get pulled over and harrassed by the cops for no reason...or have security follow you through a store because you're looking for some new shoes...or have white women cross the street when they see you coming down the sidewalk. Or maybe just sit and listen to your grandma talk about her lynched brother, or how she used to have to ride on the back of the bus and drink from a different fountain, or get beat up for trying to vote. Yeah, you've missed out...

      July 26, 2011 at 11:06 pm | Report abuse |
  4. An Attempt at an Explanation

    This seems very simple, and I can simplify this in two points. Point 1, it seems the school has a policy to look at GPA and # of credits to determine the valedictorian. Point 2, the student with the highest GPA is the valedictorian. The exception is if two students have the highest GPAs but differ in # of credits. For example, let's say Student A took 8 credits a year for a total of 32 credits a year, while Student B took 16 credits for 1st 2 years and 14 credits for last 2 years (2 less credits due to AP Science class w/ lab). If both students got all A's and 1 B, then Student A would have a slightly higher GPA than Student B. They both would essentially have the same GPAs (thus the school elects them as co-valedictorians). Hopefully the school followed this policy in the past, or else the girl has a legitimate complaint.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Name*Dana

      How about being brought to this country as a slave and then dont get paid for your labor. Blacks built this country while the white man got rich. So blacks deserve everything we get. By the way, you get the higher paying jobs anyway. This recession has hurt blacks more. 16.2% blacks unemployed to your 8%. When blacks get arrested for the same crime, guess who go to.jail while you get a warning? You cant handle being black for 24 hours

      July 26, 2011 at 11:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • tourguide83

      Name: come in usa as a slave and workin for free is going on right now for USA citizens in graduate school and international graduate students.

      July 27, 2011 at 1:29 am | Report abuse |
  5. TG

    What's really interesting is your point of view. You see blacks as being inferior because of your given reason; however, blacks see the school system as being unfair / bias. It's like the chicken and the egg. Which came first. Your perception or theirs? Regardless, as a professional teacher, my hope is that you're part of the solution to the problem in which you speak instead of someone who facilitates this problem with your thoughts, feelings, and actions.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:46 pm | Report abuse |
  6. haterr

    LOL.
    This girl made me laugh.
    Seriously you just graduated. Grow the eff up and quit whining!
    As for the money... That's another LOL matter.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Bill Stickers

    So let me get this straight: a black girl is mad because she has to share the valedictorian designation with a white person and she's calling racism? She won't do well outside of high school. Life doesn't always happen how you want it to happen. Every time she doesn't get a job or if she doesn't get into the university she wants she'll claim racism.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:48 pm | Report abuse |
  8. reshalef he

    way Blacks have and are still treated

    Correction: way Blacks have been and are still treated.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:48 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Jason

    Thank you for having the balls to speak up.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:49 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Marty B

    Reversed reverse discrimination. Poetic justice. So, how does it feel?

    July 26, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Charles

    The rule book also says they have to be consecutively enrolled for the last two semesters. Depending on when she had her kid, she might not even qualify. They probably thought they were doing her a favor letting her be the co-valedictorian.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Darrell Rose

    If the students were of the same race this wouldn't be an issue but because home chick is African American then it's automatically racist.....this is crap.

    If homechick is so damn smart, then she can do the math, read the policy, and accept that the principal's decision is mathematically correct and within the policy.

    Shame she wants to undermine her achievement by playing the race card...cuz she be needn dat $75,000 cuz her babydaddy ain't payn.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Carole Clarke

    The school admin people should've sorted ALL this out before any announcements were made. They jumped the gun and now have this high profile charge to face. The first place a child learns how unfair public life can be is at school. What if a child with a genius IQ is put into the last year of high school and his numbers tote up to be higher than those students who spent 4 years working hard – that's not fair to them but by just his numbers he takes the valedictory laurels. School need to get these placements agreed to before announcements are made public.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Becky

    Wow, really?! It's 2011, let's get over the racial claims.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sista

      You get over the behavior and we'll get over the claims... Deal?

      July 27, 2011 at 11:00 pm | Report abuse |
  15. disco_fever

    Bad reporting to write an article without input from the other side. Investigate a bit, don't just say, "Thompson was not available for comment" and then leave it at that. You have 2 hundredths of a difference and no justification (even lame justification) provided.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
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