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. RObert

    LOL I know this girl well.... she cheats on all her tests. trust me and she does "favors".

    July 27, 2011 at 2:31 am | Report abuse |
    • Liligi

      I should find a way to forward your comment to her so she could sue you for Slander. How bout that?

      July 27, 2011 at 2:33 am | Report abuse |
  2. robert

    I saw the same racism in my high school in Houston. AMERICA NEEDS TO MAKE SURE ALL KIDS HAVE A CHANCE TO EXCEL. OR ELSE IN 2 GENERATIONS WE WILL NO LONGER BE A SUPER POWER. Here is my story:

    I entered 9th grade there with straight A's from another school in another state. My parents were immigrants so did not understand the concept of AP and Honor classes. The guidance counselor at the school, Jim Dallas, put me in regular courses for 9th grade. I got bored, made straight A's, but also caused trouble because I was so bored. Then I met friends in an extra curricular summer computer science course who were in the AP and Honor courses at the school. I liked what they described what and how they were taught. I told my guidance counselor that I wanted to be in the Honor / AP program. He said that I'd have to take 2 math and 2 science courses to catch up. In my 10th grade I had 2 more classes than anyone else. For example, I took geometry and algebra II at the same time in 10th grade. That decision set me up for Honors Pre-Calc and AP Calc for 11th and 12th grade. In those grades all of my classes were honors and AP. I ended up graduating in the top 10 in a class of over 1000. Thank God for that computer science summer course and those kids that introduced AP and Honor classes to me.

    July 27, 2011 at 2:32 am | Report abuse |
  3. dakota

    Advice to the young lady in the article. What you have learned, no one can take away from you. You don't need a lawsuit to prove anything to anyone.

    Make a difference and be a role model for other people like yourself. Show everyone that it is possible to overcome insurmountable odds. That is your role now.

    July 27, 2011 at 2:34 am | Report abuse |
  4. teacher in Arkansas

    Here is the link to the school's handbook. The distict and the administration should have read it and talked to the legal team before making a judgement call on this.

    July 27, 2011 at 2:35 am | Report abuse |
  5. fef

    Trailerparkinsas?

    July 27, 2011 at 2:36 am | Report abuse |
  6. Willis Tokabunch

    Is she lessbean too? Lez electer pressadent. Willis

    July 27, 2011 at 2:37 am | Report abuse |
    • MoodyMoody

      Obviously not. She had a baby in her junior year of high school, and fertility doctors don't work with unmarried high school students.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:28 am | Report abuse |
  7. RObert

    lol.. they nickname her the "hummer"

    July 27, 2011 at 2:37 am | Report abuse |
  8. Willis Tokabunch

    Daz my baby shebe habbin.

    July 27, 2011 at 2:41 am | Report abuse |
  9. dakota

    Why are there so many comments about "morals" in this article. The young lady is a "young mother'
    How is that immoral? What age do you need to be before it is "moral" to have kids.

    Even if she is unmarried... Who's morals are you talking about? The mother of Jesus was pregnant before she got married... Tell all the catholics that pray to the virgin mary that their saint was "immoral"

    What the school district did was "immoral" there is no issue with the young lady as I see it.
    She is a heroine.

    July 27, 2011 at 2:43 am | Report abuse |
  10. Jeff

    It sounds like this girl wanted it all for herself. I mean $75,000 for not getting Valedictorian??? And what does her having a kid have to do with anything in her statement?? Is that worth extra credit now?

    July 27, 2011 at 2:44 am | Report abuse |
  11. dakota

    What a minute... I have a great idea... in the handbook all female students should be subject to a "virginity" test before being allowed to be a valedictorian. you know, just like they do in Egypt.

    July 27, 2011 at 2:46 am | Report abuse |
    • Luek

      A 99% failure rate is too morbid to contemplate. Besides some a hole will just fill a stupid lawsuit and have it overturned.

      July 27, 2011 at 2:50 am | Report abuse |
    • nick

      so you think way muslim extremists run Egypt are the way the Arkansas should be run?

      arr you an al queda member?

      do you hate america?

      you are a JOKE!

      July 27, 2011 at 3:33 am | Report abuse |
    • David

      @nick – are you so bent out of shape over sarcasm that you declare someone unAmerican for joking about something? Honestly, just don't ever respond to anything ever again unless you are 100% sure you completely understand the meaning and intent and have had a class on the particular subject explaining it's merits or lack there of. Only then should you consider a response. However, even then, I urge you to just keep your opinion to yourself. Otherwise, you will appear just as foolish in each of those responses as you do here now.

      Oh, and by the way, nick.. try masking your hatred for other people a little better. Bigotry doesn't really have a place in the modern world. I say you need to do a case study on Norway to perhaps learn to act as a member of a decent society. Perhaps take a course on that, as well.

      July 27, 2011 at 3:48 am | Report abuse |
  12. Luek

    Female Valedictorians are supposed to be models for other students and especially girls. Having an illegitimate offspring is not the best of all inspirations. These so called "single moms" are really trash but they act like it is a normal lifestyle choice and they deserve some kind of medal for it.

    July 27, 2011 at 2:47 am | Report abuse |
    • Diane

      Well stated! This is not racism! She made poor choices! Children who haven't made poor choices should not be subjected to "looking up to her".

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

      Reality check:
      Valedictorians are chosen based on GPA, and she had the highest one in her class. That she did so as a single mother is even more impressive.

      People like you truly perplex me. Given your indignation about her having an "illegitimate" child, a term that betrays your conservative world view, I would have thought you would have applauded her decision to keep her baby. I guess that she's a black woman and not named Bristol Palin disqualifies her from your respect, let alone empathy.

      July 27, 2011 at 3:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Thomas

      Technically, Jesus was an illegitimate child according to the Babble.

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

      Haha, yeah. If only she'd gotten an abortion like the rich white girls I went to school with. An all-girls Catholic school, mind you. I'm 24 years old now with a master's degree and dammit, I respect her for getting awesome grades while raising a child! Thank God she's doing something with her life! She's on a path to much more success than all the spoiled suburban kids who don't even hold a part-time job in high school, let alone a full-time job of being a parent!

      July 27, 2011 at 3:28 am | Report abuse |
    • Edwin

      If she was capable of having the highest GPA while also having a baby, then I think she deserves it all the more.

      July 27, 2011 at 3:33 am | Report abuse |
    • Captainboss

      What a moronic, racist comment. To make a stereotype judgement "these single moms are trash" reveals the depth of your prejudice to race and gender. You need help.

      July 27, 2011 at 3:38 am | Report abuse |
    • Danny

      A lot of dorks here. So she had a baby, so what!!! which rule exist to say one who has a child can not be valedictorian? As long as she came out the best, she shouldn't share her crown. i bet if it was reverse, we will be talking a different story here.

      July 27, 2011 at 3:39 am | Report abuse |
    • FlyGuyInSJ

      I'm with Marc on this. She made a mistake and wound up pregnant. I'm not going to defend doing something stupid, but in the aftermath of stupid, she did the morally right thing and did not murder her baby. Then, to top it off, she went on to earn the highest GPA in her high school. She has earned my respect.

      You can find tons of people whose mistakes are greater than hers who are viewed as role models by many. She's not perfect, but she did the right thing in the end and exhibited grace under pressure. Let's not forget that Jesus said He came not to save the righteous, but to save sinners.

      July 27, 2011 at 3:44 am | Report abuse |
    • Master Yoda

      Isn't it odd that Bristol Palin had an illegitimate love child and yet was selected by a conservative religious educational group to be their high priced spokesperson for advocating abstinence among teens. Where were all you holier than thou racists then?

      July 27, 2011 at 3:45 am | Report abuse |
    • FlyGuyInSJ

      @Captainboss – I don't see how you can claim that saying "these single moms are trash" is a racist comment, unless you're taking the position that "single mom" is a race. Let me guess: you learned to debate on the Internet, didn't you?

      July 27, 2011 at 3:46 am | Report abuse |
  13. Jb

    After taking AP courses myself....I wonder what the ratio of grades were for the class whose teacher encouraged both races to take the AP course. Hmmm

    July 27, 2011 at 2:58 am | Report abuse |
  14. Diane

    Come on! She got knocked up underage. Who wants that for a roll model?! How about a roll model who is still childless at an age where she should be childless. Oh yea – and I am black.

    July 27, 2011 at 2:59 am | Report abuse |
    • Simon

      How about try spelling "role" right and then commenting about a valedictorian. Just because she had a child doesn't make her less worthy. Actually standing up for herself and her fellow students of all races makes her more of a ROLE model than you could ever be to anybody.

      July 27, 2011 at 3:08 am | Report abuse |
    • marie

      A "role model" maybe?

      July 27, 2011 at 3:22 am | Report abuse |
  15. alex

    why Valedictorian is a big deal here in the US?

    July 27, 2011 at 3:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Bigman

      I think it helps with College tuition/ Discounts on Credits earned. Something like that, oh and you can say for the rest of your life, F it I was the smartest kid in my class for the year "2011" or whatever year you graduated.

      July 28, 2011 at 7:48 am | Report abuse |
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