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. Rod C. Venger

    GPA is GPA. Anything else is just ego. GPA's have almost become meaningless when you see GPA's above 4.0. It's all feel-good mentality.

    July 27, 2011 at 12:48 am | Report abuse |
  2. James Jenkins

    The idea that non blacks always pull the reverse race card is amazing. I know a white race preferenced guy who one day accused me of pulling the race card, I found this strange because he was delivering pizza and complaining about Obama and taxes and the bad breaks white people are getting, me I am a rich black man who don't need to get in the game of playing cards.

    July 27, 2011 at 12:57 am | Report abuse |
  3. Chris

    I hate that this is happening today. We need to move on. Racism should be left in the past.

    July 27, 2011 at 12:59 am | Report abuse |
  4. bukes1

    Look, the school made a bad decision and deserve the sh**storm they're going to get for making her share such an honor. That being said, this article barely talks about her being a teen mother. It sounds like the school was more concerned about that issue than her race. Wrong either way but the article did a bad job in covering that aspect of the story.

    July 27, 2011 at 1:05 am | Report abuse |
  5. steve

    This is injustice! I'm glad Kymberly Wimberly is getting national attention. I'm Asian I faced the same kind of crap when I was in high school. In one class I literally aced every test but the white teacher lowered my final grade to a C, while raising white student's grades. I went to the department superintendent, who was also white, and she brushed me off. I hope justice will prevail for Kymberly!

    July 27, 2011 at 1:07 am | Report abuse |
  6. Mis

    My school had 5, count them, 5 co-valedictorians. At the time we didn't use a number based system, it was just letter grades. All five had straight A's from elementary school to Senior high. All took the exact same pre-college classes. All participated in the same number of extra-curricular activities. Suffice to say, they changed their grading system the very next year. My thought is even if it differs by .0000000001%, there should be only 1.

    July 27, 2011 at 1:08 am | Report abuse |
  7. conexes

    Another ridiculous cry for attention from a self-proclaimed victim, who apparently was otherwise intelligent. The classic struggle of the "poor [insert racial description here] can't get the same treatment as the white guy" is so tired and monotonous that her "plight" may as well have come from an NAACP factory.

    What ever happened to working hard at something, then moving on and working hard on the next thing?

    July 27, 2011 at 1:09 am | Report abuse |
  8. NMGrrL

    If Ms. Wimberly has a higher GPA, then she should be the valedictorian. There's no provision for "close." It sounds like there's no debate that Ms. Wimberly's course load was academic and challenging, but the analysis wouldn't change if she took vocational education classes and excelled under the rules at her school. The fact that the alleged "co-valedictorian" is white does raise the ugly specter of racism here. Ms. Wimberly's high school experience can be surely said to have been much more difficult than average given her status as a teen mother. A half credit does not equate to that in any way, nor did Ms. Wimberly receive a grade for parenting! The "co" MUST go - this is a sham, pure and simple. I hope Ms. Wimberly prevails. It matters; there are scholarships and various honors at stake and there is the moral PRINCIPLE to uphold.

    July 27, 2011 at 1:12 am | Report abuse |
    • Michael

      The fact that the only difference between their GPA is the white person's GPA is being penalized for taking on a LARGER work load shows that the white person in this case should have been solely awarded valedictorian, because that person accomplished more than the black person, and not because of color.

      July 27, 2011 at 1:22 am | Report abuse |
    • Ron

      BS. The Co-Val had more credits and that should count for somthing. If the "Co" had been black then not a word would have been said. You cant have it both ways.

      July 27, 2011 at 1:32 am | Report abuse |
    • Bigman

      okay, now i'm understanding it, Kimberly had the higher GPA by .3 or .5 over the (Not Named White Student) but the white student took 1 more class compared to Kimberly so this turns out to be a " I feel bad for the white girl whom took on more workload and still had straight A's like Kimberly, but according to the Hand book that i'm sure alot of Caucasion folks wrote up many years ago, they technically have to still give the sole Valedictiorian Award to Kimberly. ...Hmmm, sorry to say, sucks but Kimberly didn't make the handbook rules, and the white student didn't as well, if anything the white student has something to sue about to the school about the rules. As for Kimberly, her only award if she wins should be named Sole Valedictiorian ! Good for you Kimberly !

      July 27, 2011 at 1:36 am | Report abuse |
  9. thetruth

    Just admitt it people racisim in the south will never change, let alone anywhere esle, that Principle knows that he is dead wrong, so when your talking about playing the race card OH WELL, stop with the BS, and stop being so cowardly.

    July 27, 2011 at 1:14 am | Report abuse |
    • Robert Barnes

      Do you realize you made several spelling and grammar errors in your short little rant?

      July 27, 2011 at 1:24 am | Report abuse |
    • RegJoe

      @ Barnes.. this is an informal setting.. I think we can let the grammar slide.. Pointing out flaws in others isn't the best way to go through life.. why don't you offer your perspective instead?(... <–is used as pauses in this case)

      July 27, 2011 at 1:36 am | Report abuse |
    • Jose

      What are white people scared of?

      July 27, 2011 at 2:05 am | Report abuse |
    • Robert Barnes

      @ RegJoe- The suggestion was that it's much easier to make a point and be understood if you don't sound like a fool. If I am trying to understand and appreciate someone's view, they should take the time to try and sound educated. It's about putting your best food forward.

      July 27, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Michael

    It's very obvious none of the people commenting on this actually took an AP class, otherwise they would realize that the straight-A student taking more credits would wind up with the lower GPA over the straight-A student who took the same amount of AP classes but fewer non-AP classes. So basically you punish the student who takes on a larger work load because of a silly stat which favors the lazy.

    July 27, 2011 at 1:18 am | Report abuse |
    • Liligi

      And it's very obvious that you haven't either..... Unless you completely failed your reading comprehension and literature classes. DID you read all of the article?

      July 27, 2011 at 1:27 am | Report abuse |
    • Rob

      Lazy? I didn't take a single AP course because I cultivated multiple sports opportunities in addition to pursuing the study of music so that I could be well-rounded. Now, I'm a professional musician and a high school football and soccer coach. Was what I did as a high school student "lazy?" Check your ego at the door.

      July 27, 2011 at 1:29 am | Report abuse |
    • Guest

      AP classes give college credit which saves money. It is not fair to invite whites more than others.

      July 27, 2011 at 1:31 am | Report abuse |
    • Bambi

      Exactly. That's why the student handbook says that taking additional credits will not penalize a student's class rank. The extra half credit diluted the co-valedictorian's weighted GPA.

      July 27, 2011 at 1:54 am | Report abuse |
  11. Christopher

    Its 75,000 not 750. People should learn to read accurately before they open their ignorant mouths

    July 27, 2011 at 1:22 am | Report abuse |
  12. Andrew

    Oh hell yes, it's racism. Sue the living crap out of them!

    July 27, 2011 at 1:23 am | Report abuse |
  13. taobao

    Yeah, sure.

    The affirmative action that allows so many blacks into university when their spot should've been filled with higher scoring Asians sounds like a "snubbing". Give me a break. So much for equality.

    July 27, 2011 at 1:27 am | Report abuse |
  14. Guest

    PBS featured astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said in an interview on Maria Hinojosa's show that he was routinely looked down upon as a young person for pursuing physics and was not taken seriously and also testifies as this young lady here that he was only expected to be involved in sports, it seems that is all American culture wants African Americans to do is play ball games? It is so sad laziness and being blue eyed and blonde is the most revered so it seems in this culture. It isn't like that in Asian cultures where education is very highly valued and not the drug dealing enterprising many American high schools are.

    July 27, 2011 at 1:28 am | Report abuse |
    • Constantchange

      I'm still looking for my blonde haired and blue eyed scholarship of which you speak. Until now I've been foolishly working my way through school, I must have missed that preferred category on the university application.

      July 27, 2011 at 1:49 am | Report abuse |
    • Jose

      @Constantchange, I guess it's hard for you to empathize, but just because *every* white person in this country does not get special privileges does not mean there isn't inequality, wouldn't you agree?

      July 27, 2011 at 2:34 am | Report abuse |
  15. LaTrel

    CONGRATS TO MISS KYMBERLY! You did it AND you shall continue getting it done! This story is heart-breaking,but I wish you well girlfriend.

    July 27, 2011 at 1:33 am | Report abuse |
    • Bob Saget

      mhmmm gurlfraaaand

      July 27, 2011 at 1:44 am | Report abuse |
    • Burns

      mmmMmmmM OHHHHHHH HELL NO

      July 27, 2011 at 2:08 am | Report abuse |
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