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. Jeremiah

    When will black people ever stop crying? They're the only ones holding themselves down.

    July 26, 2011 at 11:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Deshawn

      Well , being a black man , I must say you are kinda right... However, WE are not crying. It is easy for someone that is non-black to say that we are crying. But the after affects of slavery leaves a residue that will take years to remove.
      This girl deserves to be awarded her just due. That is why I am glad OBAMA is in the WHITE HOUSE TODAY !!!!!

      July 27, 2011 at 12:01 am | Report abuse |
    • dale

      black people will stop crying when raciets people stop there ignorance about them. i said raciets people. there is a real struggle out there

      July 27, 2011 at 12:09 am | Report abuse |
  2. Mike

    Jason,

    If he is black as you saidhe is then we call those Wigger lover!

    July 26, 2011 at 11:50 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Truth and Light

    Laoutzu12: your obvious failure as a human being has nothing to do with your color (or lack thereof). You were simply born and remain an idiot.

    July 26, 2011 at 11:51 pm | Report abuse |
  4. 1ofTheFallen

    Not a good case and KW will lose. The other student had at least one class more that was harder than KW's which would be how she earned the extra half credit. Their GPA's are very close within 5 one hundredths of each other and the other student had taken a harder class. As the student handbook explains this can be taken into account. Case closed. Sounds like she doesn't like her co-valedictorian or she is a white hater and maybe a racist herself.

    July 26, 2011 at 11:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • BBoy

      Actually, the other student had half a credit more, but it was not an AP level course. Kymberly had the harder, more rigourous course load.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:20 am | Report abuse |
  5. Jeremiah

    Can't wait for Jesse Jackson to chime in on this one.

    July 26, 2011 at 11:52 pm | Report abuse |
  6. John

    It seems like we are getting a half story here. Unless their GPAs were actually the same after a credit adjustment that applied to all students, there should be no co-valedictorian. It's a bit ridiculous to demand money out of this and it probably hurts her chances of being accepted into certain schools because they'll find out about this and think if she did it to her high school, she can do it to her college. On the other hand, it's not like co-valedictorian is going to hurt her, she still has the highest GPA; it just happens that someone else does as well.

    July 26, 2011 at 11:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • dale

      i agree about the money part. but i think there will be many that will look at this as determination point of view( i hope)
      also money is the only thing that hurt a public sector if they are violating the right of people. so sue them over it..and ask for more

      July 27, 2011 at 12:12 am | Report abuse |
    • Monica

      John, did you read the article? It says the GPA doesn't have to be the same, it can be off by .05. I don't believe there's any national standard on this, it varies from school to school.

      July 27, 2011 at 12:16 am | Report abuse |
  7. JRRR

    The irony is that most likely the most gifted and hardest working student at that school and most other schools is not one of the students that are even considered for the valedictorian label. They'd be much better off eliminating such honors.

    July 26, 2011 at 11:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Majestic_Lizard

      It wasn't about race. It was about money. I guarantee you that student with lower grades who graduated as co-valedictorian was rich and had an influential family. Had that family been Hispanic, black, or Asian it would have gone the same way. Rich people don't have to work as hard to be granted academic accolades.

      July 27, 2011 at 12:17 am | Report abuse |
  8. BlackDynamite

    Arkansas is the backwoods. Nothing surprises me
    BD

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

      Leave!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      July 27, 2011 at 12:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Neal Kelley

      Why should he leave... because some racist pig demands it. No.. you should leave.. We will fight to change it!!!

      July 27, 2011 at 4:52 pm | Report abuse |
  9. jason

    It's really amazing how CNN conveniently leaves out that the superintendent who made the decision is black.

    And what if he hadn't been? Look how many people on here automatically jump the gun and conclude that "oh she's black and says she was discriminated against, so it must be true." Black people are able to get away with murder in employment and school because of their threat of lawsuits. I have seen it a thousand times at work and in college.

    July 26, 2011 at 11:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Batts

      How do YOU know he's black? Where did you get your information from?

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

      Thomas Gathen is an African American Superintendent. I know this because I'm stationed down there in the Air Force. http://www.facebook.com/people/Thomas-Gathen/100001566518740

      July 27, 2011 at 12:18 am | Report abuse |
    • knowitall

      where did you encounter such things in the workplace and college? Please give me examples because I think you're making all this up. Saying that Black people get away with things because people are afraid of lawsuits is just plain stupid. You MUST have gone to school in Arkansas if you truly believe this.

      July 27, 2011 at 12:18 am | Report abuse |
    • Neal Kelley

      So black people get away with disciminating against thier own kind hugh? Well it looks like this guy did not escape this lawsuit... so your point is pointless!

      July 27, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Alan

    Brown vs. Board of education was Kansas. Debillo. You go, back to school grandma

    July 26, 2011 at 11:58 pm | Report abuse |
  11. OnlyAmerican

    $75,000 ... is she kidding? Sound like a ploy to throw down the race card so the school system settles rather than take it to court. Sad, with such an academic record, she has such potential. Now, she has tainted herself with such accusations. Her mother, who works within the school system, would have surely seen racial preference going on way before her daughter was ready to graduate and NEVER raised a flag about it before. Sort of dispels their allegations. Shame on them both!

    July 26, 2011 at 11:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • kels

      The difference was a few 100ths of a point, and the other kid had more credit hours. Be gracious. Get over it. And tuck that race card back in your pocket. And how the heck is being named 'co-validictorian' worth 75 grand? I'm glad she has supportive and involved parents. Lots of kids don't. But teaching her to claim discrimination when life happend and things don't go her way is disgusting.

      July 27, 2011 at 12:30 am | Report abuse |
  12. Not valid

    I don't see the problem. She still gets to be valedictorian..many schools have co validictorians...especially if a student transfers in with a lower gpa because the previously school had less ap classes....there are a lot of factors that may allow for lower gpas with straight a's for both of them...why deny the other person the honor...there was no indication this was based on race

    July 27, 2011 at 12:02 am | Report abuse |
  13. rixides

    This girl needs to Google the name'Blair Hornstine' and learn from that mess. Valedictorian status in high school means crap outside high school. She'll be a little fish in a big pond should she go to college.

    Oh, and her mother works at the school district and can't fill out school board paperwork properly? FAIL!

    LMAO!

    July 27, 2011 at 12:02 am | Report abuse |
  14. Krista

    I think that this her family must be known as complainers, her mothers colleague commented (before the law suit) about what a mess this would be. Did the colleague realise that the "co" was going to throw the wimberley/bratton household up in arms? If so, she can definatley say "I told you so."

    July 27, 2011 at 12:04 am | Report abuse |
    • Racists Should Pay For Their Hate

      Her mom didn't say it would be a mess.. that's what she overhead. Probably after the other teachers realized that she wouldn't be the only valedictorian.

      July 27, 2011 at 12:27 am | Report abuse |
  15. Che-3

    Racism is ALIVE and WELL in evil SPERM America.

    July 27, 2011 at 12:05 am | Report abuse |
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