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. JomoDaMusicMan

    Racism, has not died in America. It is more coverted. Look at the Black Woman in Georgia whose child was killed by Hit & Run Driver. This Driver was drunk and had drugs in car when caught but he does only six months in jail. Now this lady who's child was killed was charged with 2nd degree manslaughter and was facing (3) yrs in jail for allowing her child to break loose and run into the street. Have any of u every heard of a White Woman be tried for manslaughter after her child was killed because she was jaywalking

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

    I remember when my mom was growing up...she was passing a note in elementry school..the principle took her into his office and belted her hand until she bled....He said "cry you black Syrian cry"...He was white my mom never forgot what happen and she was only about ten years old....she went through a lot of racism growing up...Now my kids who look white have been harrassed by black kids all the time...when will this visious cycle end...When will someone be the bigger person and decide they will give another person of a different race a chance to be friends..I don't think I will ever see it in this life time because I don't think people today have enough decency and class to ever do the right thing...I'm disgusted!

    July 27, 2011 at 12:07 am | Report abuse |
  3. Bigman

    My point is if the white student had a higher GPA by .3 or .5 than the black student, why not only give the Award to the student with the highest GPA ? Why split it and make Co-Valedictorian ?

    July 27, 2011 at 12:08 am | Report abuse |
  4. peggy

    If, as someone stated the Principal is black, he is still biased, racist, and elitist. This student must have had to work extra hard having to look after a child and study. She is a practical role model. She is correct.

    July 27, 2011 at 12:09 am | Report abuse |
  5. Darius

    The superintendent isn't black his spokesman is... Some of you need to read and do your own research instead of copying someone else's post. And the principle made the decision not the superintendent.

    July 27, 2011 at 12:09 am | Report abuse |
  6. Grey Ghost

    Her name is priceless – best story I've read all day...

    July 27, 2011 at 12:14 am | Report abuse |
  7. tourguide83

    I don't get this. My school did weight down the fact that if you are taking harder classes such as AP classes, or grades from post secondary education ( attending university/college) those grades weight differently than from easy A classes. In fact, if you get B in AP class, it was counted as an A, in my high school.
    It sounds to me that this black student did not just become a co-valedictorian because she is black, but this is issue of how grade system works. Not penalizing by taking easier class does not mean it is equivalent to taking harder AP classes.
    I personally think being second is better than being first. So congrats to Kymberly either way.

    July 27, 2011 at 12:15 am | Report abuse |
    • jason

      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"

      That is why she has to share it– it is policy. And the one who made the final decision was the black superintendent. Enough said. If you people would freaking READDDD THE ARTICLE before you comment on it

      July 27, 2011 at 12:31 am | Report abuse |
  8. Faustian

    Couple of things:
    1) How did she calculate the $75,000 figure? Lost scholarships? Sounds ridiculous to me...

    2) If this co-valedictorian had also been black would this 'victim' have been as adamantly opposed to the outcome?

    July 27, 2011 at 12:16 am | Report abuse |
    • dale

      yes it could be lost tuition. thats not unheard of to pay more than that in many schools.

      second, i am not sure if it would have been a problem if the other person would have been black.
      But what happened was it was NOT. so why dont you look at this situtation and not the silly what ifs.

      July 27, 2011 at 12:20 am | Report abuse |
    • Bigman

      Wait so where does the .3 or .5 come from, whom had the higher GPA ? That lone single person should have won the award agree ?

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

      The 75k is for PUNITIVE damages...meant to punish the school for their behavior. She doesn't have to justify that number to you or anyone else. Whatever the jury/judge feels is adequate punishment if they do determine the school discriminated against her.

      July 27, 2011 at 12:29 am | Report abuse |
    • Tchaikovsky08

      It says the complaint was filed in District court, i.e. federal court, and $75,000 is the minimum amount in controversy requirement for subject matter jurisdiction if the action is based on diversity of citizenship. My guess this is the case, and the $75,000 figure was to satisfy the legal requirement to bring the suit in federal court

      July 27, 2011 at 12:33 am | Report abuse |
  9. tenya griggsby

    This young lady should pursue her claim against the school district. Although it is 2011 and many things have changed, unfortunately, there are still people in decision-making positions who just refuse to do the right thing fearing reprisal from the backward-thinking community. Her principal obviously was not brave enough to go against the grain and let this student's achievements speak for themselves and to minimize the expected backlash diluted her accomplishment by appointing a white student to share the honor. Shame on him! Right is right. She worked hard – even harder by being a teen mom – and earned top honors. This speaks volumes for her, as well as the fact that she obviously has a supportive family who will continue to help her. Fight the good fight, my little sister!

    July 27, 2011 at 12:17 am | Report abuse |
  10. Bigman

    Why not only give the Award to the student with the higher GPA ? Why split it ? Say it was a miscalculation and move on. She lost by .3 or .5

    July 27, 2011 at 12:19 am | Report abuse |
  11. Calvin Hobbes

    McGehee must not have any Asian students graduating.

    July 27, 2011 at 12:19 am | Report abuse |
  12. delacosta

    Was the white valedictorian going up against Kymberly Wimberly named Julia Goolia?

    July 27, 2011 at 12:19 am | Report abuse |
  13. Abe

    If what she said is true, then the School needs to be punished for their behavior. YOU GO GIRL!

    July 27, 2011 at 12:20 am | Report abuse |
  14. Gabbi

    She had the highest GPA and most schools consider that valedictorian period. now if you want to count how many lunch periods each had or how many times they raised their hands or how many books they dropped or how many times the year before they reported late.. well then that makes all the difference.lol

    July 27, 2011 at 12:21 am | Report abuse |
  15. KG

    There are so many schools that choose two #1 students. I highly doubt its racially motivated. I wish people wouldn't play the race card any more. We are all human...the same....I just don't get it. She should just be proud of what she has achieved and stop trying to cause a problem.

    July 27, 2011 at 12:22 am | Report abuse |
    • Veritas

      Escapism drowns justice. How do we expect to become better people if injustice is swept under the rug because it might involve racism. That truth will eventually be known whether or not the "race card" was played or not. To denounce a case simply because it may involve racism is to promote injustice and to be ignorant to the fact that racism still holds ground in the public and private sector. It may have lost its former potent grasp but it still holds on.

      July 27, 2011 at 1:11 am | Report abuse |
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