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. Dr. Bombay

    Wow. It appears that this country can't do $#!^ right.

    July 27, 2011 at 1:37 am | Report abuse |
  2. trollhunter

    Please do not feed the trolls. It only makes them friskier.

    July 27, 2011 at 1:39 am | Report abuse |
  3. alex

    So if shewas white and had to share it with a black student..... there would be no sueing? No article? Just th fact that race plays so heavly here makes me wonder.

    July 27, 2011 at 1:41 am | Report abuse |
  4. Chris

    arkansas? been down there, i'm from california, i can tell you, they are into being racist. went to a walmart and the old white lady cashier who called the white guy in front of me sir then me boy. me, a 43 year old black man...

    July 27, 2011 at 1:43 am | Report abuse |
    • Burns

      Could she have been joking?

      July 27, 2011 at 2:09 am | Report abuse |
    • joeinsense

      whatcha doin in arkansas, boy?.... seriously though, you are surprised that Arkansas is racist? even more so, its walmart, man. even the walmart in california will have racists people in them.

      July 27, 2011 at 7:46 am | Report abuse |
  5. Bambi

    Think about it this way: If two straight-A students take all the same classes except one takes an extra unweighted elective, the student with the extra class will have the lower GPA. It's not fair for the co-valedictorian to have a lower class rank just because he/she took an extra half credit that diluted the weighted classes.

    July 27, 2011 at 1:52 am | Report abuse |
    • Tyler Durden

      Agreed, and this sort of politics happen all the time. I remember when I was in high school there was similar controversy over the selection of Valedictorian. It all came down to handbook rules, AP credits, etc, also. I guess it's lucky that all the contenders were of the same race. No one could claim racism. You didn't to play the race card to feel that there was some unfairness about it all.

      July 27, 2011 at 2:16 am | Report abuse |
  6. Ladyga

    Your stupid for saying that

    July 27, 2011 at 1:56 am | Report abuse |
  7. Tvoj

    Most schools don't just consider GPA, since she could have been taking the easiest classes possible. The white student more than likely had a lower GPA and more AP classes, and they gave her valedictorian BECAUSE she was black. I'm not saying her school district isn't racist, they probably are. I live in Atlanta and see racism (going both ways) all over the place. I really doubt they would hold her back because she's black. That just sounds obnoxious.

    July 27, 2011 at 1:57 am | Report abuse |
    • Bambi

      There was only a very small difference in GPA, so I think both students took the same number of weighted classes, or the co-valedictorian took one fewer weighted class but got straight A's. The very small difference in GPA was dilution from the extra half-credit.

      July 27, 2011 at 2:10 am | Report abuse |
  8. WOW

    WOW, 2011

    July 27, 2011 at 1:58 am | Report abuse |
  9. Jeff

    I don't see the racism here, why would anyone seriously care if a black person was valedictorian???... We are only getting one side of the story but it sounds hokey... Kind of like small town politics. Good thing the other person wasn't a male or else maybe it would be worse. Things people do for money.

    July 27, 2011 at 2:00 am | Report abuse |
  10. #@@

    An unwed ho for valedictorian, great role model class of 2011

    July 27, 2011 at 2:01 am | Report abuse |
  11. Max

    75K over .03-.05 of a GPA? Let's get serious here. The claim about AP classes being racist has nothing to do with the class placement thing, but it sure stirs up a bit of controversy to make the story / suit sell. If she wants to go to a post-secondary school she surely has the scores, and in a few years no one will care what her rank was in the class.

    This does, however, sound like a good attempt at raising cash for school or other interests.

    July 27, 2011 at 2:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Oi

      It's interesting watching racists come out of the closet, especially when they see there's a whole school district somewhere supporting their philosophy. You can bet your bottom dollar that if the situation regarding the scores were reveresed, there would only be one valedictorian – the white student. The guy is lying through his teeth. They refused to answer the mother's valid questions because there was a mistake on the form she filled out? I'd sure like to know what that mistake was. Did she forget to dot an "i" or was it something validly egregious? You're pretty blithe, given the additional information Miss Wymberly conveys that (most any black person and even a significant number of whites would say) points up a pattern of discriminatory practices. You have to remember that racism is still quite healthy here in the US, just surf some posts made in news stories (of most any kind) involving blacks – it will knock your socks off... or not. This young woman is showing a lot of bravery and is standing up for her individual rights and for what she worked hard to acheive. It's certainly not about the money ($75k? Meh!), and if you think it is, you are indeed a fool.

      July 27, 2011 at 2:28 am | Report abuse |
    • tiladx

      I don't remember who the valedictorians were in my high school class, because my high school grants valedictorian status to anyone with a GPA of 4.00 or higher. So many students of all races take AP courses at that school take AP courses that race is moot. I finished with a GPA around 3.8 and was barely in the top 10% of my class of over 600.

      I agree that $75k over this issue might be a bit much (it's not like a college will withdraw their offer of acceptance just because she wasn't the sole valedictorian), but I will refrain from passing judgement until more facts and rebuttals are made public.

      July 27, 2011 at 2:34 am | Report abuse |
    • Frediculous

      Why should the taxpayers pay her anything? She got a free education. She remains a Valedictorian. I guess they could fire two teachers to come up with the money to give to her because there is white person who had success, thus hurting her feelings. To be "fair", they should fire one white and one black teacher. That way everybody would be "happy".

      Now wouldn't it be wild if she lost the lawsuit and had to pay the white student a judgement for malicious harrassment. We know that the lawyers win and the taxpayers lose no matter what, as always.

      July 27, 2011 at 2:36 am | Report abuse |
    • tim from tx

      Ohhhh. That explains the "Wealth Gap" CNN reported on today.

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

    Sick sick sick, you can say say it was about race if i can say the shooting in Detroit at a vigil for a missing four years old happened because those people don't know how to act.

    July 27, 2011 at 2:05 am | Report abuse |
    • Mike D

      "those people" yeah, we get it.

      July 27, 2011 at 2:21 am | Report abuse |
  13. m

    Was I the only one who noticed that her 'co' had more credits than her? That is also a determining factor, not just grades. She is ignorant. She can still put on her college apps that she was valedictorian. So who cares? Case closed.

    July 27, 2011 at 2:13 am | Report abuse |
    • Barfy Spewsalot

      I bet they "Earned" that credit in the amount of time it takes to add one to a transcript. I bet if it was in the reverse she would not have been given a free unearned credit.

      July 27, 2011 at 2:45 am | Report abuse |
    • akmauro

      I noticed but then wondered how you could have half a credit more in high school and GPA is a statistic that 15 credits would barely change over 4 years. Half a credit is a wash. Besides ignoring the issue is irresponsible on the part of the school. They have the responsibility of explaining the decision with their proof in hand.

      July 27, 2011 at 2:55 am | Report abuse |
  14. Aussie

    I don't know if this particular case is in fact racism. Key facts surrounding the issues are missing for me to make a judgment. ... But I feel I can 'almost' relate to this girl. I did my high school in Australia, the system at that time is whoever obtained the highest index in the statewide final examinations, would become the valedictorian. I was honored to become the valedictorian that year. On my return to give the valedictorian speech, I was speaking to the school headmaster when several seniors a yr below me came and point blank said that I should not be valedictorian, that it should be a classmate of mine who is a blond and blue-eyed poster boy of the school. I remember wondering if the school admins personally thought the same way as these kids ....

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

    Another day, a new racist claim. Even though the other kid did MORE work and undoubtedly deserves to be the sole valedictorian, this girl feels that because she took a couple of advanced placement courses, that she is being denied this because she's black.

    Racism in this day in age is so reversed it's sickening. What do you expect from a culture that has Black Entertainment Television, Ebony magazine, and the Miss Black America Pageant. Maybe you all will wake up one day and realize that you have become the true racists now. The rest of the country has moved on.

    July 27, 2011 at 2:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Mike D

      Do you know how to do a correct corn-roll? How about a good treatment for shaving bumps? Maybe you can recommend a cream for even skin? Maybe you can give me some incite into the life of W.E.B Debois? It's called culture and the fact that Blacks have venues that cater to their culture is no more reverse racism as St. Patrick's Day is. Dismissing every claim of racism out of turn make you no better than someone who would actually make a false claim.

      July 27, 2011 at 2:30 am | Report abuse |
    • Oi


      July 27, 2011 at 2:32 am | Report abuse |
    • Jer

      Not really, if whites had White Entertainment Television, Ivory magazine, and a Miss White America pageant, wouldn't that be considered racism by the black community? And read the damn article, it specifically states she feels she isn't being awarded sole valedictorian because she's black. Blacks weren't encouraged to take the advanced classes and such.

      July 27, 2011 at 2:49 am | Report abuse |
    • Barfy Spewsalot

      If you had a 4.0 straight As & some black kid with a B average is given one extra credit & did not do the SAME amount of work you did what would YOU think? Why should someone be rewarded for doing less than the one who EARNED it? Would she have had to share it if she was white? Sounds like the answer is NO.

      July 27, 2011 at 2:51 am | Report abuse |
    • Jer

      @Barfy Spewsalot: Are you kidding? It says in the article the other kid did more work than her. He/she had half a credit more than her. The whole race card is just stupid here, she doesn't deserve to be the sole valedictorian, if anything she should be the saluditorian since the other kid did MORE work.

      July 27, 2011 at 3:01 am | Report abuse |
    • coexist

      why do we have BEET now? Why do we have Black History month? Ask yourself that. But while you are asking yourself that look around at history books, tv shows, employment statistics and see if minorities are represented. How is that because African Americans are racist because they seek representation? If it were not for civil rights movement and people standing against racism African Americans would still be required to walk with their heads down, get off the sidewalk when white people walked on the same side of the street. The article clearly stated that the Parents were told by the superintendent that their daughter was the sole valedictorian. But because it would ruffle the feathers of some white people she was made co-valedictorian to keep the good white folk happy.

      July 27, 2011 at 3:03 am | Report abuse |
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