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. Tyrannosaurus Rex

    Hey TG, how can blacks think of the educational system as unfair or biased, when affirmative action has been in place forever already? How much time do blacks need to catch up? Eternity??? With affirmative action, it is the Asians and whites who end up being treated grossly unfairly. But you don't hear any Asians (and whites?) complain... We Asians are simply wimps.....

    July 26, 2011 at 10:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sista

      You can't be serious. Whites have lied, cheated, killed and stolen from every other race since history has been recorded. You'll never get back what you've doled out. It will be a cold day in hell before anyone that is not white see's white people as victims.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:03 pm | Report abuse |
  2. MeggyMoo

    I am white and grew up in an affluent white community. I agree with what she is doing. Arkansas is still behind in the times in areas and needs to improve on a few things as a state. I praise her for busting her ass and not being a statistic. I hope she goes on to do great things. She could be a great inspiration to many.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:55 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Hunter

    I graduated second to last out of 400 in my graduating class but hell at least I graduated and by the way I married our class valedictorion (? On if I even spelled it right) 5 years later lol

    July 26, 2011 at 10:56 pm | Report abuse |
  4. FelipeBR

    A modern society.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:56 pm | Report abuse |
  5. AGuest9

    The South shall rise again, yeehaw, and all that crap... Get with at least the 20th Century, folks!

    July 26, 2011 at 11:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • DumbAtheist

      It's so cool to hate white people and get covered by the national press. yahoooo!!!

      July 26, 2011 at 11:24 pm | Report abuse |
  6. 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 11:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • jason

      Oh get over it. Poor victims. So, what are you doing for your people starving in Africa? You think you have it so bad here. Trying living under a black majority in your original continent and see how much opportunity your people have created for you.

      If people cross the street when they see black people coming, it is because of crime statistics. It is about self-protection. Over 90% of interracial crimes involving a white person and a black person has a black perpetrator and a white victim.

      Just because some black people may be pulled over inexplicably does not mean they are targeted for racism. Black people think everything that happens inconvenient to them is racist. It happens to white people too. Get the hell over it.

      July 26, 2011 at 11:39 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Trollme

    I believe this COMPLETELY. I've seen it happen in suburban AND urban schools, public, parochial and private, with either an asian, black, or hispanic, against the less qualified, "likable" white student.

    July 26, 2011 at 11:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • nate

      Racists always assume the white person is less qualified.

      July 26, 2011 at 11:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Trollme

      Gnat- Your stupidity is astounding. GPA is about numbers, and in every single case I'm referring to, the white was in fact less qualified, and an exception was made to benefit the less qualified white student.

      July 26, 2011 at 11:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • DumbAtheist

      This girl obviously has a racist axe to burn. She wasn't there for the full year so according to the rules she shouldn't even have been valedictorian. The person she has to co-share with is an AP student with a half a credit more. I think the issue is that she had to share with a white girl.

      July 26, 2011 at 11:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Trollme

      O.K.

      So, with regard to my original comment, I have seen it AND experienced it, being the minority in the situation.

      Once, I myself was the new student in a private school taking an advanced science course. We had taken a test, and I had forgotten to put my name on mine.

      So, later when I receive a near failing grade for that midterm exam, I, in utter shock, sit down with the teacher to go over the test. As were were going through answers, I remarked to this teacher, "I already know this..." and "I remember putting that as the answer/working that solution".

      I didn't know this at the time, but it turned out this other student (white girl), had forgotten to label her test too.

      When my remarks regarding the answers became a pattern, only then did he admit that he had just decided to assign the higher scoring unlabeled test to the white girl, because according to him, "He didn't think there was a fair way to decide." CAN YOU BELIEVE THE NERVE?

      He later looked like a fool when I described to him this process I have of marking questions as I answer them, and sure enough, when he puled out the other test, he saw the marks I described!!

      Of course I was awarded the credit/higher grade (and later came out on top of that class), but the teacher and deans decided that to preserve the interest of the white girl, they didn't give her the lower grade she had earned. So essentially she benefited from my (minority) intelligence.

      Later this same girl was involved in a scandal that rocked the school, as one of our athletic coaches (who was also a teacher) had been sleeping with her before he went on the lam.

      True story.

      July 26, 2011 at 11:44 pm | Report abuse |
  8. scott

    the KKK would be able to help her out with tuition for college im sure

    July 26, 2011 at 11:02 pm | Report abuse |
  9. bert

    Your dumb!

    July 26, 2011 at 11:03 pm | Report abuse |
  10. reshalef he

    Claire

    You're probably correct, that it was about morals and not race, but if they didn't have any policy in place that stated anything other than GPA was considered, she still has a case. I doubt she'll get $750K–she's obviously viewing this as a golden opportunity.

    Why is it when whites file a suit for something it is probably for some reason of injustice or infringement, and when Blacks sue (for the same reasons) it is interpreted by whites as "seeking a golden opportunity"? Someone please explain the rationale behind that?

    July 26, 2011 at 11:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • E

      It says 75K, not 750

      July 26, 2011 at 11:18 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Jim

    Blacks have a lot of stuff going for them.... HBO-Black, STARZ-Black, Black History Month, Black Entertainment Television, etc.. etc.. etc... Now what would happen if we had HBO – White, STARZ-White, White History Month, Whiter Entertainment Television... That would be considered racist, so in other words get over your damn self and go to college.

    July 26, 2011 at 11:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • really?

      Hi Jim...you mention 3 channels devoted to blacks...how generous of the whites. Your comment is laughable and even more funny is how you do not that your comment just advances everyone's argument that blacks are discriminated against.

      July 26, 2011 at 11:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Listening to you

      Very well said! You must be black :o)
      but seriously – I could not have said it better!!!!!

      July 26, 2011 at 11:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • bryan

      you do have all of this, its called everything else. LOL

      July 26, 2011 at 11:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      Well people just need to understand that no matter in what culture there is a type of racism, my wife is black and i'm not.. she read this story and laughed because people play the race card to often.. But i mean no disrespect but damn just be proud of the accomplishments you recieve and just move on.

      July 27, 2011 at 3:36 am | Report abuse |
  12. Knucklehead

    Get past the racist claims? What else do you call it?

    July 26, 2011 at 11:05 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Chris Bingham

    "the mother heard "in the copy room that same day, other school personnel expressed concern that Wimberly's status as valedictorian might cause a 'big mess.'"

    I'm not sure this line made it into the CNN article. There also hasn't been a black student valedictorian since 1989. Might be a pattern there.

    July 26, 2011 at 11:05 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Concerned Citizen

    Tell em again! HAHAHA

    July 26, 2011 at 11:05 pm | Report abuse |
  15. ellen

    Having grown up white in a rural East Texas School I am sure she has a valid complaint. When I was in the sixth grade the class was split up, "stupid kids" and "smart kids" the stupid kids were moved across the hall. They were all black or very poor whites. Not one black kid remained in the smart kid class. When I failed a test the teacher asked me if I wanted to go to the "stupid" class I kid you not. The school would have never allowed a black to be valedictorian.

    July 26, 2011 at 11:08 pm | Report abuse |
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