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. humtake

    Sorry, too many non-reported facts for anyone to make a decision. If the student was at the school for the time stated in the handbook and had a higher GPA, then there should be no valedictorian at all.

    As far as the AP classes, not one bit of proof was given in the article. They don't give any instances where they stopped anyone from taking the classes. If the ratio is lower of one race to another, then that responsibility comes down to the parents regardless of race. By whining about this all you are doing is causing school districts to have to put people in AP classes based on their race and not on their ability. Sorry, but our schools are already graduating people they shouldn't...they should not have to put kids in AP classes that shouldn't be there.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:19 am | Report abuse |
    • bunbytes

      Back in the 60's when I was in high school in a 50/50 black/white mix, my parents had nothing to do with my enrollment in AP classes. I was placed in these classes because of my performance in class as were the other black and white students. The school system did the right thing and our parents weren't required to step in. So, what you seem to be saying is that unless your parents fight for what is due you, you're out of luck. I believe this girl's mother is bringing this situation to light because of the discouragement of blacks and encouragement of whites for AP classes. Get a grip.

      July 27, 2011 at 8:34 am | Report abuse |
  2. IGNORANT1

    I DONT THINK A RACE CARD WAS USED IN THIS WHATSOEVER. WHATS HERS IS HERS. I AM NOT A AFRICAN AMERICAN. I AM WHITE, AND THIS SOUNDS LIKE A BUNCH OF BS JUST BECAUSE THE SMART YOUNG LADY BECAUSE OF HER COLOR. NICE COMMENT THOUGH BIGGOT.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:19 am | Report abuse |
  3. cmello

    If what she and her mom said is true, and if the lawyers think they have a valid case, sue them! And yes, use it for college.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:19 am | Report abuse |
  4. Deanna

    Its a fine line between encouraging teen mothers to get their education and not reward them for their foolishness.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:19 am | Report abuse |
  5. Corey

    Knowing the outrageous level of nepotism in schools, this may have less to do with race, and more to do with who the other co-valedictorian is. Schools are typically filled with administrators who are small-thinking, mediocre men (usually men) who throughout their lives have never dared leave the cozy confines of academia. They went to elementary school, middle-school, high-school, college, grad-school, and then right back into school as a teacher and then eventually principal and superintendent. Many having never done a single thing other than school, their entire lives. Since it's such an insular little community inside schools, you have rampant favoritism and nepotism.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:19 am | Report abuse |
  6. Trey

    Most red state educations aren't worth the crayon on their diplomas. Hard to take any states who don't value science seriously.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:20 am | Report abuse |
  7. Xerxes 2011

    Alright, let's keep it simple. She got the highest overall gpa in the school and did it as a mother. Much respect baby! The school is saying it's not a race thing, ironically they chose a white student with less overall gpa to be co-val, then what else can it be? I have never heard of a co-val for 2 folks with 2 diff gpa's? You either tie because of it or you dont! Any for TinCup, saying parents should've focused on keeping her legs closed instead of race card, ya out ya dng mind. i knew plenty of white girls getting pregnant not once, but 2-3x in school, but getting the abortion do they didnt have to own up to having a kid in high school. If she was trying to get money only, then she should be suing in the millions, not just 75k, tuition costs, that might cover a few years of schooling.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:21 am | Report abuse |
    • tnies

      Schools all over the country increase gpa's for taking advanced classes. They're generally considered worth more. Almost all schools now have a regular GPA and a weighted GPA and in most cases the weighted GPA is what is taken into account. Otherwise, you'd have the smartest kids in the school sandbagging their schedules and the other students to become valedictorian – which, apparently to her, is worth 75 grand, or to you, is worth "millions". Both of which are totally bizarre; I'm not sure where she gets a number like 75 grand from unless she thinks that because she wasn't valedictorian she's losing $75,000 worth of scholarship money. Millions is just strange. How do you justify that number??

      July 27, 2011 at 8:40 am | Report abuse |
    • Tom

      Yes well it happens.

      When I was in high school I had the highest GPA but became a co-valedictorian with a girl. She had a lower GPA, but they hadn't had a single valedictorian in years. They decided to compare semester grades instead of GPAs.

      I didn't DREAM of complaining about it. Even as a co-valedictorian it was a huge honor. I would never have disrespected my co-valedictorian by calling her out like that.

      Also, in my school, honors and AP classes were available but not encouraged. You took the classes you wanted to take and then earned grades accordingly. Now if students are being denied access or misinformed, that's one thing.

      Sometimes a person should seek challenges for themselves- is encouragement really necessary?

      July 27, 2011 at 8:44 am | Report abuse |
  8. 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 8:21 am | Report abuse |
    • Xerxes 2011

      f*kc you! white teachers be grading a white and black curve. if you were to systematically review all teachers grading, i am sure corruption would get many white teachers tossed! White teachers only show love when the black student is an athlete but a very good athlete that makes the school look good, especially in sports. something for the white man to sit around the kitchen table or a cookout and brag to his other white friends about school sports!

      July 27, 2011 at 8:33 am | Report abuse |
    • Joey2can

      And you wonder why they play the race card...

      July 27, 2011 at 8:38 am | Report abuse |
    • Joey2can

      ABEN, apparently they feel the way they do because you feel the way you do. A vicious cycle really.

      July 27, 2011 at 8:40 am | Report abuse |
    • pchsbenz

      Whites use more drugs than blacks as reported by the CDC. They have more money to spend on drugs, they are less likely to be suspected of possessing and distributing drugs. Your comment clearly backs that statement up. Blacks don't all take education as seriously as whites however, the ones that do clearly show they are able to compete and often times do better than their white counterparts.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:28 am | Report abuse |
  9. James

    Anna, it will end when "you" people stop being racist!! The girl got top grades in the class and still gets cheated out of what she deserved.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:23 am | Report abuse |
  10. megan

    Kymberly, you go lady. congrats on your achievement, you deserve it. Also, way to use your status to bring about changes in your school, as a young mother too, you deserve some praise.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:23 am | Report abuse |
  11. David

    I'm not sure if the conditions are the same as this story but we had something similar happen at my high school. We had co-valedictorians, one with a lower GPA than the other. The thing was they had the same number of B grades and the rest were As. The difference was that the person with a lower GPA had taken more classes so the average made her GPA lower.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:24 am | Report abuse |
  12. CNNRubbish

    Our Valedictorian was dumb. This girl (white -seems necessary to bring out) took four years of nothing.
    Glad I graduated in three not to see her on the podium. The deserving person was a (white girl) who packed her schedule and took the hardest courses possible. So, not everything is entirely fair and if you are black everything is not about race.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:24 am | Report abuse |
  13. David

    Oops meant to say that the person with the lower GPA had taken fewer classes.

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

    It is obvious that Kymberly Wimberly put academic status far above moral status, already being an unwed mother at 18. She is in stark contrast with the young man Joseph in the Bible, who was enticed by a young woman, who was Potiphar 's wife, to "lie down with her."(Gen 39:7)

    Joseph refused repeatedly and kept his moral integrity. As a result of his adherence to the moral bounds established by God, he was sent to prison as a result of being framed by Potiphar's wife (Gen 39:20), for he had earlier told her: "How could I commit this great badness and actually sin against God ? "(Gen 39:9) Because Joseph maintained moral cleanness, his life account was recorded in the Bible for all to give serious consideration to, in the midst of a world that has no moral compass.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:28 am | Report abuse |
    • Judywire

      The Bible you are quoting has no bearing to this case. The young woman is simply talking about injustice which is a form of unrighteousness and you are here judging her for having unwed baby. What has her baby to do with this case? She should be recognized for her work regardless of race or marital status.

      Remember that God is Righteous and think about that before you pass judgement on people. Your judgement should also be righteous if you are a child of God.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:12 am | Report abuse |
    • pchsbenz

      "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." (John 8:7) – Jesus Christ

      For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; (Romans 3:23)

      1Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 3“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-6)

      Now unless you are Jesus himself, your moral compass is flawed due to your condecending judgements.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:46 am | Report abuse |
  15. Jaime

    This tragic news. All I can say is Some say don't drop the soap; I say don't drop the hope.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:28 am | Report abuse |
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