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. Enuff

    All she did was point the finger at her race. The black kids are not encouraged to take AP classes blah blah blah.
    Um she says she was passed over for Valedictorian because she's black. So....it's a racist thing? Pay close attention to this comment she made.

    (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."
    NOW THAT'S A RACIST COMMENT IF I EVER HEARD ONE!!!!! A white person would not get away with saying that in the context of this story. I want to puke now

    July 27, 2011 at 4:55 am | Report abuse |
    • whocares

      She is referring to the other black students not the white ones. don't puke too much you may actually lose what little brain you have left

      July 27, 2011 at 5:49 am | Report abuse |
    • trashlady

      Well ...when you have a sick narrow mind you can't see what is right. Did you finish highschool???
      Doesn't sound like it. Ummm

      July 27, 2011 at 5:55 am | Report abuse |
  2. whatastupigirlsheis

    and this so called "snub" is worth $75K? instead of coming accross as a validictorian, she is acting like a whiney little brat. what did she lose out on, not a darn thing, nothing wrong with being a co-valedictorian. looks as if she is off to a good startat living off someone elses dime.

    July 27, 2011 at 5:06 am | Report abuse |
    • Jillian

      EXACTLY RIGHT

      July 27, 2011 at 5:58 am | Report abuse |
    • trashlady

      You are really quite stupid ....don't you think? when you do people wrong your dime should pay the cost of their loss.

      July 27, 2011 at 6:00 am | Report abuse |
  3. Cesar

    Ms. Kymberly Wimberly's story and achievements are inspiring. I look forward to see what happens with her case.

    July 27, 2011 at 5:08 am | Report abuse |
    • Chad

      What a waist. There is no monetary value for what she is suing for. This only hurts her. As a valedictorian, she has the chance for so many scholarships. What school wants a person who may or may not file a lawsuit? For a valedictorian, that wasn't a very smart move.

      July 27, 2011 at 6:05 am | Report abuse |
  4. Bo S. Ton

    It wasn't because of race. It was because of her name – Kymberly Wimberly...

    July 27, 2011 at 5:15 am | Report abuse |
  5. Chad

    Can we reach her father for a comment?

    July 27, 2011 at 5:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Kevin

      Which one?

      July 27, 2011 at 6:12 am | Report abuse |
  6. Ro

    She probably does deserve the honor of being valedictorian. However, she is wrong to play the race card. Her claims are not enough proof to show this was an issue of race. How do I know that those people at the assembly were mostly white people and that it was coincidence that they were mostly white as well. Remember that she said the majority, not all, people individually spoken to were white.

    Kimberly is right to fight this battle but claiming so for the wrong reasons. She should be fighting this "only" with academic proof and policy not race!

    July 27, 2011 at 5:29 am | Report abuse |
    • Ro

      For the assembly statement I meant to say "I cannot tell from her statement if the crowd was mostly white and coincidentally the people pull for an individual meeting were mostly white as well."

      July 27, 2011 at 5:34 am | Report abuse |
    • Roger

      Well since the school is half black, and most schol assemblies have all the students.....

      July 27, 2011 at 6:24 am | Report abuse |
  7. ohplease

    Whenever you don't get your way, always whine "racism." Always.
    And George – if you don't know the definition of rules, look it up. She might have had a grade of a million, but if the rules stated that "so and so", then the rules apply. Nowhere in it does it say "but if you're black, you can be an exception." This country is sooooooooo tired of the constant racism. Sort of like the boy who cried wolf. When you people get a life, then and only then can you climb from the bottom, but not until then (and I doubt it's gonna happen).

    July 27, 2011 at 5:40 am | Report abuse |
    • trashlady

      It is so funny how ignorant, low intelligence people are always trying to find a reason to be superior to someone else.
      Shame on you. You need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps Bubba.

      July 27, 2011 at 6:04 am | Report abuse |
  8. unowhoitsme

    The school board needs to fire the administration and staff. All students, regardless of race, should be encouraged to reach the top. A horrible school with horrible teachers. Fire them! Go girl, and congratulations for your success!

    July 27, 2011 at 5:58 am | Report abuse |
  9. HeeHawGoat

    SSDD!!! It's time to leave this place and go for self!!!

    July 27, 2011 at 6:06 am | Report abuse |
  10. Kevin

    "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."

    That doesn't mean taking a semester off to have your baby. It doesn't mean taking the semester off to attend the district's "alternative school" and still earn credit while you have your baby. It means CONTINUOUSLY ENROLLED AT McGehee High School.

    July 27, 2011 at 6:15 am | Report abuse |
  11. canadafirstaid

    I was our class valedictorian when I finally completed high school in Canada in 1966! Today I joke 'I could not spell valedictorian – but, I is one now'!! Seriously, I repeated my last year of HS – due to several reasons, but finally graduated with (this is important, folks) NOT the best grades in the class. My mentor, teacher saw how I did work hard and "did not quit" – so, I was asked to be the valedictorian. I see co-valedictorian as an answer to this situation and way in on the side of the principal. Finally, I've travelled thru. Arkansas many times and love the people and country side . . . . get over it folks – there's a lot more serious matters to solve besides this minor issue. CRA

    July 27, 2011 at 6:16 am | Report abuse |
    • CanAm

      I graduated from HS in Canada in 1969. I had significantly higher grades than the next person in class and for that I received an award. Valedictorian status, namely the honor of giving the "Farewell" address on behalf of the class (check the etymology of the word), went to another, academically very strong student, who was more representative of the class for a variety of reasons. It was entirely appropriate, I thought. When I came to this country I learned that, here, valedictorian status typically goes to the person with the highest GPA, computed using some arbitrary formula to account for the variety of classes taken. It seemed to me then and seems to be now a very narrow and flawed criterion.

      July 27, 2011 at 7:13 am | Report abuse |
    • Sarah

      I don't know how Canada does things, but valedictorian means best grades not best effort. The person with the highest GPA is the only one that should be named. If more than 1 student have the EXACT same GPA, then they can be co-valedictorians. The second best GPA is called the salutatorian.

      July 27, 2011 at 7:20 am | Report abuse |
  12. B A

    I want to address some things that were said in these comments:

    "It would be different if the roles/races were reversed." – You don't know that.
    "All the past co-valedictiorians had the same GPA." – That doesn't mean they always have to.
    "She earned it fair and square." – There's a good case that other kid earned it too, although it's downplayed in the story.
    "She did it all while raising a kid." – That's absolutely irrelevant.
    "750,000$" – 75,000$

    I think most of the controversy in this story can be dispelled by actually reading it.

    July 27, 2011 at 6:25 am | Report abuse |
  13. hoppajoppa

    Many enormous schools based on their size award several valedictorians. There's a huge high school here that had four last year. Co-valedictorian legally means the same thing as valedictorian, so that's not a valid answer.

    Plus, there are all sorts of clauses. I was valedictorian of my class because the person with the highest GPA got drunk and stole a car. This girl has nothing to complain about. She incurred no financial loss and it's normal for people to share the role at huge schools.

    July 27, 2011 at 6:28 am | Report abuse |
    • roger

      a teen unwed mother is hardly a role model but better than your example of a would-be valedictorian who stole a car.

      July 27, 2011 at 6:56 am | Report abuse |
    • WWRRD

      She is Valedictorian. She overcame the odds, (single teen mother) to get there. She is well positioned to get into a good college most likely with scholarships. The fact that the school also recognized another student who actually had more credits with less than a tenth less GPA does not diminish this girl in any way.

      Playinmg the race card here only diminishes this girl and teaches her a bad lesson. She earned Valedictorian through her own hard work. Now she is blaming race discrimination for not being sole Valedictorian. Will this be her tendency through her working life? Whenever she doesn't get everything she wants she blames racism. If that is the case she is in for a disappointing life. This rush to always see racism to me is one of the problems with race relations in our country. There has surely been horrible racism, but when people rush to see racism, even when there is none, it breeds resentment and tension in both blacks and whites.

      July 27, 2011 at 7:28 am | Report abuse |
  14. orionreplay

    Actually as it is stated, the white co-valedictorian had half a credit more in GPA. So was she named Valedictorian mistakenly at first, but once learned of this other student, as it was said in the copy room this would be "a big mess"? Of course they knew it would be, because this lawsuit from this girl proves it. It wasn't to be "a big mess" because she was black. They couldn't retract her Valedictorian status, so they made co-Valedictorians.

    But what of the student handbook quote about a student being enrolled full time for the last two semesters? That part of the story doesn't get picked back up on. Was she not enrolled during the last two semesters? Was that the time of the childbirth?

    July 27, 2011 at 6:42 am | Report abuse |
    • Tool Schmool

      No you're wrong. The white student had -.03 or -.05 less GPA but was in harder classes which is at the heart of her case, because she says she was prevented from taking them. Students are given more points for taking advanced classes.

      July 27, 2011 at 6:58 am | Report abuse |
    • GS12 in VA

      Actually orionreply, even though the article staes that her co-valedictroian had half a credit more, it also states that she had the higher GPA. So, there was no mistake and would not have been a need to retract her valedictorian status.

      July 27, 2011 at 7:13 am | Report abuse |
  15. pamik

    If both had the same grades then it would basically be a tie, therefore, co-valedictorian. If Ms. Wimberly did have the highest scores then why is there a need for a co-? The money has me questioning her real motive though. In today's society, we have to be kinder and not hurt anyone's feelings so instead of 1 there are two. Lots of schools have done away with naming the top two highest grade students because "everyone" isn't named. Such a shame at what we're teaching our kids today. We all have to be equal little drones.

    July 27, 2011 at 6:42 am | Report abuse |
    • 12bdrumer

      good one!!

      July 27, 2011 at 7:16 am | Report abuse |
    • CarmenSo

      Money is the only thing people understand. If you hurt someone financially they tend to remember not to make the same mistake twice.

      July 27, 2011 at 7:27 am | Report abuse |
    • Kana

      Just like T-ball, nobody wins, nobody looses. everybody's equal.
      Unfortunately life isn't fair or equal when you get out into the real world.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:16 am | Report abuse |
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