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. Anon

    Now the black kid is trying to pay for college.

    July 27, 2011 at 6:46 am | Report abuse |
  2. tired of hearing it

    Thats right go ahead and play the race card again to make money you poor thing

    July 27, 2011 at 6:53 am | Report abuse |
  3. chris

    Since your Searching for MONEY now I take it you didnt get that Scholarship uh?? lol always looking for Handouts uh?

    July 27, 2011 at 7:06 am | Report abuse |
  4. Ivoirienne

    African Americain People are trying to better themselves in this society that is always trying to put them down, and mar their image. White people are always trying to keep them down. Karma is a B****, one day we will pay for everything we've been doing to them. I'm ashamed reading this story

    July 27, 2011 at 7:06 am | Report abuse |
    • Allen

      Why you just called me racist... Maybe I should sue you for $75,000.

      July 27, 2011 at 7:23 am | Report abuse |
    • tcp

      You're a pathetic bigot.

      July 27, 2011 at 7:30 am | Report abuse |
    • CarmenSo

      Allen you can sue for defamation of character, but you would have to prove in court that you aren't a racist

      July 27, 2011 at 7:40 am | Report abuse |
  5. Jray84

    If this girl can sue her school for this i should be able to sue everytime some black kid gets accepted to college on his race over his/her merits.

    this article and this girl are pathetic

    July 27, 2011 at 7:11 am | Report abuse |
    • JC

      Well then I should be able to sue for the same reason huh? Because believe me idiot I can name more blacks kept out of college and more less qualified whites accepted. Handouts? Huh? Come stand in the social services line where I work, I don't see anything but meth addicts and their 20 kids...guess what color they are?? LOL I think they should do away with the practice but give me a break. You folks trip me out trying to say certain people always want handouts. My husband is a bankruptcy att...LOL Talk about handouts? Talk about living million dollar dreams on an engineer and teachers pay?? LOL Guess what colors fill those court rooms?? LOL LOL HANDOUTS?? But hey you have made us a very wealthy pair and I can afford to send my kid to private school because people like you want it and can't afford it!!

      July 27, 2011 at 7:42 am | Report abuse |
    • JC

      And another thing Jray84 contrary to your backwoods belief every black kid in college isn't on a free ride, isn't a sports superstar, didn't get there because of race. That's something people like you claim because it makes you feel better when you don't measure up. That's something your parents teach and you pass down to your kids so you can use it as an excuse the rest of your lives...you know sort of how alot of you on here say blacks use race. LOL

      July 27, 2011 at 7:50 am | Report abuse |
  6. tenyalg

    I really hope that she receives a monetary judgment for this injustice. Unfortunately, getting people to do the right thing, just because it is the right thing to do cannot be automatically expected. But the one thing that most people will react to is being penalized monetarily. Since this school district wouldn't recognize her solely for her accomplishment, then they need to be hit where they can really feel it – in the pockets. When this situation happens again, there won't be a problem, not because the powers-that-be have been touched in their hearts and recognize a student's achievements, but because there is the threat of being sued and losing. School districts across the country are suffering from budget cuts, and probably don't have the funds to keep going to court and losing obviously racially-motivated cases. In most cases, people can't be made to do the right thing because it's morally correct, but when you hit them where it really hurts, they may take pause and not bend to racist rhetoric and feelings.

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

      You do understand that the school budget is funded with YOUR dollars, don't you? What systems (school or otherwise) understand is BAD PRESS! Shine a spotlight on 'em and they will change.

      July 27, 2011 at 7:32 am | Report abuse |
  7. steven

    To bring a lawsuit, you need to suffer some type of damages. Example : My car was destroyed, my child was killed, etc". In this case, there are no damages. If I don't receive the "best student award" or do receive this award, it has not financial impact or other impact... Was she denied admissions somewhere? Refuse a job? Nope. As for the GPA, technically the other student had slightly more work. Complete waste of time and money... I wonder if they even had an attorney file papers?

    July 27, 2011 at 7:14 am | Report abuse |
  8. ZysPsyk

    For a "valedictorian" she sure is a moron.

    July 27, 2011 at 7:19 am | Report abuse |
  9. NoHandouts

    Damages of $75K for what? How exactly was she damaged? Potential scholarship money doesn't ride on whether she was considered #1 in her class or co-#1. It is based on her GPA. She didn't lose $75K worth of anything.

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

    What a crock. The highest GPA earns valedictorian. Any other interpretation is an effort to appease the losers that couldn't keep up, or measure up. The student that took the harder classes should have done so with the confidence that they could earn a high grade in that harder class. She should win this case because she was deprived of an academic honor that she earned. Shame on the school board that changes the rules, or interpretation so that the honor can be shared. Second place is just another name for "first loser". If they get away with this in 2011, then in 2021 they'll have a dozen valedictorians.

    July 27, 2011 at 7:30 am | Report abuse |
    • tcp

      She wasn't deprived of anything. She has not and will not suffer any "damages". Your assessment of how this honor should be awarded is spot on though.

      July 27, 2011 at 7:34 am | Report abuse |
  11. jimatmad

    Simple question. Has this school (not some other school, but this school) had co-valedictorians who did not have the exact same GPAs?

    If the answer is 'Yes', she doesn't have a case. If the answer is 'No', she wins.

    July 27, 2011 at 7:33 am | Report abuse |
  12. Kate

    it is totally a race thing

    July 27, 2011 at 7:36 am | Report abuse |
    • Shaman13

      It always is... at least with some people. Some people think that when they fail, it has to be because of their skin color. People want to be propped up by society, and not earn their own rewards. Obviously, there was more to the choice than her grades. In a district that has 46% black students, I HIGHLY doubt it was racially motivated. It was probably the fact that she has a child. Personally, in my eyes, that would have been extra credit for the girl because most teenage mothers would have bailed on school and already been on wellfare. At least this kid graduated and is trying to make something of herself. That's a lot more than you can say for most girls that get knocked up that young. So while I admire this girl's work ethic, I wish she hadn't resorted to the "It's because I'm black.." argument. That crap is getting really old.

      July 27, 2011 at 8:01 am | Report abuse |
    • Against Kate

      Kate, How can you absolutely call it a "race thing" without hearing from the other side? Or for that matter, other witnesses?

      July 27, 2011 at 8:01 am | Report abuse |
    • Ken

      I don't think so. The story says she's a young mother. Maybe it's a morals thing... and nothing to do with race. They used to throw kids out of school when they got pregnant.

      July 27, 2011 at 8:05 am | Report abuse |
  13. beebon

    Reminds me of Judge Ito's picture on the cover of Time Magazine during the OJ trial with the caption: "What a mess". Indeed, this is a mess. Why can't Ms Wimberly just take what has been graciously given to her by her school and be happy with it? I can not even spell valedictorian correctly without the spell checker and I have two BS Degrees in Science. Nobody is going to care in four years anyways if she would have just graciously accepted the distinction: however, the stink has been made so now everyone will remember the girl who slapped the hand who gave her the award. And what of the mother, does she not really care for her job since she works for the school district. Sounds like somebody counted their chickens before their eggs hatched. Instead of "what a mess", it should be "what a pity"

    July 27, 2011 at 7:39 am | Report abuse |
    • A Malik

      Wow what a racist remark!

      July 27, 2011 at 7:49 am | Report abuse |
    • Letsbereal

      She wasn't given anything. She earned it. It's about respect. If I earned a promotion at work and my boss made me share the pay raise with someone who had not earned it, I wouldn't drop it either.

      July 27, 2011 at 7:51 am | Report abuse |
    • Anthrogirl

      For your Information, she earned this award, it was not just handed to her like a charity case. She was the best student in her class with the "highest" GPA.

      July 27, 2011 at 7:53 am | Report abuse |
    • sigideba

      Actually, Malik, that comment had literally zero racism. Knee jerk reaction much?

      July 27, 2011 at 7:59 am | Report abuse |
    • Cory D

      The award given to her? Valedictorian isn't given, it's earned and she did so in spades. I'd be ticked off too if I was given a bad hand, still won the game and then told there was a tie when it was not.

      Co-award winners need match her grade. Period

      July 27, 2011 at 8:04 am | Report abuse |
    • BSargent

      She can't leave it alone because some people look for offense around every corner. The are offended by the way you talk to them, by the way you look at them, by the way you don't look at them, by the way you dress, so on and so forth. Most of what she says is supposition and opinion and cannot be pointed to factual figures. And besides, she's obviously doing it for money...$75,000 punitive damages!!!??? Apparently her mental suffering for not being the only person named valedictorian is excruciating!

      July 27, 2011 at 8:04 am | Report abuse |
    • avgctzn50

      graciously given to her??? You sound bitter, not smart.

      July 27, 2011 at 8:05 am | Report abuse |
    • Stephen

      Your response is crazy. You're suggesting people should never do what's right or speak up and defend themselves out of fear of losing a job? And you're suggesting a boss can force someone to act the way he/she wants by lording that person's job over them. What a loon! And they didn't give her any distinction, she just got the highest grade...it's fairly simple.

      July 27, 2011 at 8:05 am | Report abuse |
    • jwonder

      I completely disagree with your comment. Its a matter of principle. If she is the only valedictorian then she should be recognized as the only valedictorian. Concerning your statement "Why can't Ms Wimberly just take what has been graciously given to her by her school...." The valedictorian award/honor was not given to her. She EARNED it through her work in the classroom. The mom standing up for her daughter is the right thing to do. I agree that there is the potential for the family’s actions to affect the mother’s job. She is modeling to her daughter that one needs to stand up for what is just even though justice may come with a cost.

      July 27, 2011 at 8:07 am | Report abuse |
    • udontknome

      You clearly do not get it, do not reply to posts if you are clueless or take those two science degrees and do science.

      July 27, 2011 at 8:07 am | Report abuse |
    • Margroks

      The whole point is that Kimberly wasn't "given" anything. She worked hard and EARNED the right to be valedictorian. And, according to an overheard conversation, office staff apparently thought there would be white people upset because an African American student was named validictorian so they took away the singular honor from Kimberly solely for that reason. Nobody just gives you valedictorian status because a student must be a top academic scholar. I think it's clear this was all a ploy to soothe the white racists in this community and I applaud Kimberly for speaking up.

      July 27, 2011 at 8:10 am | Report abuse |
    • Deanna

      Why didn't they make the 2nd place kid Salutatorian? Why should this young woman have to share anything? Disgusting and so very wrong.

      July 27, 2011 at 8:12 am | Report abuse |
    • Todd

      beebon, did you read the article? And WHAT does a murder trial have to do with any of this?! "The mess" is people who want to ignore racial injustice. If one feels like they have been wronged and can prove it, then one should take a stand. She earned the award to be a sole valedictorian and they cheapened her victory.

      Beyond just the award, if the other allegations are true, there is a real problem with this school. If the school system is giving less support to African American students, aren't they breaking a law? It is a public school and should not be biased race and a whole list of other criteria. It angers me that we are so far from the days of Martin Luther King Jr and even further from slavery, but we are still dealing with social injustice and people just want the victims to be grateful.

      July 27, 2011 at 8:44 am | Report abuse |
  14. Dr. Hollar

    I saddens me to see time and time again that so many of my fellow Americans still hold such deep biases and harsh feelings when it comes to race. I can only hope we might discuss race issues without being so crass and uncouth in the coming year. That is all. Carry on.....

    July 27, 2011 at 7:40 am | Report abuse |
  15. J0nx

    Whatever. Move along honey. The country is getting tired of this race card BS. That card is played the F out.

    July 27, 2011 at 7:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Langley Whckersham

      You are completely right, this country is getting tired of people like you who make race an issue. If it was not for the school pulling out the so called race card by placing white kids in better classes than black kids and by selecting an inferior white student over a black student we would not have this mess.. America stop playing the race card!

      July 27, 2011 at 8:06 am | Report abuse |
    • BSargent


      July 27, 2011 at 8:08 am | Report abuse |
    • udontknome

      Really, the race card is played out! The race card would not need to be played if it were not for mentalities such as yours. Race is the reason you are where you are, no? Switch teams then and then tell me if we should sweep race under the rug. It is as relevant as ever!

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