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. noname

    $75,000 in punitive damages?! If her GPA was the highest then she should be valedictorian, but what "punitive damages" are there? Talk about a way to get your entire class to not invite you to any reunions...

    July 27, 2011 at 8:10 am | Report abuse |
  2. Christinem10

    If there were only two valedictorians it is likely that the grades are weighted. It then depends upon the type of classes and their level of difficulty that she took as compared to the other student's classes. Anything here is possible, including that she may not be the actual valedictorian and that an error was made by someone in not weighting the grades. Also, did she not attend the school full time her senior year due to the pregnancy/birth? If she was homebound that may fall under the rule listed in the handbook.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:10 am | Report abuse |
  3. avgctzn50

    Based on these comments, it looks like we have a bigger race problem than what we had in the 60's. What's wrong with you people?!

    July 27, 2011 at 8:10 am | Report abuse |
  4. Jray84

    All you people saying that since she worked hard to get where she is and she most certainly did, what do you think about how affirmative action rewards black students over white and asian students despite having LOWER grades?

    sounds like a double standard

    July 27, 2011 at 8:11 am | Report abuse |
    • anna

      Not really, the black girls are more likely to be off work more often than their white counterparts to continue having babies!!!!

      July 27, 2011 at 8:16 am | Report abuse |
  5. Ashley

    I'm very proud of this young woman, it is hard to have a child and then achieve grades like that and even graduate. She didn't drop out, she worked harder. That says something about her character. Just because she's a young mother she should not be judged negatively

    July 27, 2011 at 8:11 am | Report abuse |
  6. anna

    O my God, here is the race thing again, will it never end? These people have such an inferiority complex it is unbelievable.Do they not realize that the more they moan the less they are respected or liked.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:11 am | Report abuse |
    • krys

      Oh Aw man. White people fail to surprise me. Guess what? Do you know what Affirmative action is or did you listen to one of your ignorant white friends. Go do some research on aa and then maybe you'll have a point.

      July 27, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • krys

      Girl shut up!! Who the funk likes white people? Please don't make me go there! Start with your history and then you can decide for yourself how well you're liked. Clearly you don't know your history.

      July 27, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Richard

    The whole mess started because her mother "said" she overherard a conversation that she was not privy to. I think the mom is stirring up this mess because she got egg on her face by running her mouth when she had no business doing so,.

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

    the truth should be easy to determine- compare GPA's. Arkansas is a backwater- wouldn't surprise me if this was racially motivated.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:14 am | Report abuse |
  9. BC

    This is simple. Last time I checked harder AP or honors classes are "over" weighted to account for their greater degree difficulty. That is the only question in my mind. Assuming that is the case, then the additional weighting should stand on its own and there should have been no additional consideration taken into account and deserves explanation. I remember my valedictorian had something well over a 5 with 4.0 being the highest unweighted. That was 16 years ago though...

    One thing I don't get is how she values her status at $75k. Did she lose college acceptance or a scholarship or something? Was she publically humiliated? No one stripped her of anything. I personally think the punitive damages claim is a joke.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:14 am | Report abuse |
  10. Chris

    This entire article is about her wanting a distinction over another student who she says is "white". HMMMM

    July 27, 2011 at 8:14 am | Report abuse |
  11. Billy Davis

    The fact that the Superintendent pushed the mother's complaint to the side on a technicality tells me there probably was some complicit behavior on his part. The highest GPA period is always the Valedictorian and never some objective what courses were taken. Racist.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:14 am | Report abuse |
  12. udontknome

    NO the race thing will not end, not as long as I have breath in my body! A whole race does not get destroyed for someone else's gain and it simply end! As long as there are GAINS by one group at the expense of another, it is relevant and someone's going to pay! One day the race card is going to be pulled by the good ole boys, their families and offspring and I personally can't wait! It's coming, I can feel it!

    July 27, 2011 at 8:15 am | Report abuse |
    • Richard

      Get a life loser....

      July 27, 2011 at 8:23 am | Report abuse |
  13. bunbytes

    Nice. Let's focus on the obstacles she had, self-imposed or not, instead of the fact that she overcame them and excelled.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:15 am | Report abuse |
  14. Richard

    A 4.0 in Ebonics and a 4.0 in Chemistry, You make the call. This is why some schools have 2 canidates for the position. Its not fair to penalize anyone for taking more or more stringent courses. I do notice its not mentioned in the article about what courses either girl had taken. Also, does she plan on going to college or sitting on her butt and make a life off the 75k.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:17 am | Report abuse |
  15. Jray84

    do people honestly think you're going to get respect when you constantly cry racism when its not there? Nobody cares about your race, but when you constantly complain about racism it makes people resentful since it seems like you're trying to get special treatment. SOmetimes things don't seem fair but its not always because of racism.

    People are prejudice for all sorts of reasons, and you don't get to make such a stink about it the way you do with race. people are prejudice towards ugly people, attractive people, fat people, skinny people, they are prejudice against you because you're young because you're old, because you have no hair obecause you have too much hair.

    Prejudice exists in all forms and constantly complaining about it doesn't help you. black people today are just being babies. and everyone else just wants them to get over it and act like every other race. But no blks want to be special.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:18 am | Report abuse |
    • Trey

      Obviously written by someone who has been made fun of because of their unattractiveness, body size, and lack of intelligence. Stop whining just because your family has a poor genepool.,

      July 27, 2011 at 8:23 am | Report abuse |
    • Prw3

      You are an idiot...

      July 27, 2011 at 8:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Chuck

      Could not have said it better. be careful pointing out that some races are just being babies, although the truth can get you banned on CNN!

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

      But then there are comments like this one from below:

      aben

      Its not being racial, its being a realist. I bet if you took all black kids out of the equation schools gpa would be higher and drug and violence would be lower.

      July 27, 2011 at 8:35 am | Report abuse |
    • bunbytes

      Seems like you care about race.

      July 27, 2011 at 8:39 am | Report abuse |
    • Jray84

      FortDoug, he is right, and its not a racial thing its a result of numerous factors for why blks do on average worse in school. But it doesn't change the fact that its true. to point out that fact isn't racist.

      July 27, 2011 at 8:42 am | Report abuse |
    • Rachel

      Jray84,

      Amen to that. You couldn't be more right. Ignore these other idiots.

      July 27, 2011 at 8:45 am | Report abuse |
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