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. I Can Count

    There seems to be a basic misunderstanding of how GPAs are calculated. Some have suggested that "easier" classes are counted the same as "harder" classes, or variations on that theme, so that was how Kymberly managed to have a higher GPA. In other words, she didn't really, it was all an unfair mistake. Nope. Sewing and ceramics and English count for 4 points max (4 for an A, 3 for a B, etc.), while AP physics and AP English count for 5 points max. If that school offers IB classes, they also count for 5 points. There just isn't anything mysterious about the counting up and calculating process. It isn't unusual for the highest several students in a high school class to be separated by a couple hundredths of a point (FYI, the difference between .03 and .05 is two hundredths of a point). Identifying the student with the highest GPA isn't all that difficult as the calculations are hard and fast. The math is race-blind, but the admin. doesn't appear to be.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:28 am | Report abuse |
  2. Egon88

    Well, it does sound like there are more details than were reported in an earlier story. If there was a policy in place and had been used in the past to determine co-valedictorians, then maybe that's what happened here. They should look into the past records and determine that. I for one have never heard of a co-valedictorian, but I'm sure other schools do that as well. In my high school, they went by GPA. The one with the highest was valedictorian and the one with the next highest (no matter how close) was salutatorian. Period.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:28 am | Report abuse |
  3. I don't like the race card, but.....

    Who ever heard of a co-valedictorian that did not achieve the same GPA? You're either at the top of your class, or you are not.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:29 am | Report abuse |
    • L

      Totally agree.

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

      Me. Another student and I had straight As (& A+s–we got the highest grade possible in every class we attempted).. Our school district had weighted grades, so an A+ was worth >4.0. I took more credits than he did, which made my GPA actually lower, but you could argue that I "achieved" more by taking and succeeding in more (and in large part, more difficult) courses. Our calculus teacher devised an algorithm that proved this to the principal. We were co-valedictorians in the end.

      In the interest of disclosure and more relevant to the subject matter of the article, we are both white.

      July 27, 2011 at 8:44 am | Report abuse |
  4. Langley Whckersham

    If a white girl had been passed up for validictorian the people on this bloody web page would be screaming reverse racism. Bristol Palin has a daughter out of wed lock and is given a book tour speaking engagements. This young lady has a child and still manages to score the top of her class and people are calling her lazy, cry baby, get over it. If you can't see the differencce as to how different races are treated than you are either blind or very ignorant, either way you have no business posting !

    July 27, 2011 at 8:30 am | Report abuse |
    • shmeckell

      If she was white it wouldn't be in the news

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

      BINGO!!!

      July 27, 2011 at 8:36 am | Report abuse |
    • ofCanada

      Well said!

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

      If she was Jewish it would.

      July 27, 2011 at 8:41 am | Report abuse |
    • Raymond

      Bristol Palin's in the news

      July 27, 2011 at 8:43 am | Report abuse |
    • Jean

      If she was white, it wouldn't be in the news. But that doesn't make this right!!!!!!

      July 27, 2011 at 8:43 am | Report abuse |
    • Iowan

      Just reading the responses here leads me to believe this young lady is correct. I don't agree with the school's policy of treating people who take more challenging cources differently, especially when it appears that they don't like to offer the same opportunities to all students.

      That being said, the fact that this young lady acheived valedictorian status while being a teen mother at the same time is quite an accomplishment. I don't like that fact that she had a child while she is still a child herself, but she seems to be trying to make herself into the best person she can be. I choose to focus on that and say congratulations, Kimberly! Well done! May you go on to a successful college carreer and a happy life! Leave the baggage behind you.

      July 27, 2011 at 8:52 am | Report abuse |
  5. Pete

    She's smart enough to know that in this day and age you don't have to have a perfectly logical case to hit the PC lottery. Smart =/= not-greedy.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:30 am | Report abuse |
    • 3DThought

      As someone mentioned and I look forward to her Book tour speaking engagements and lectures on Teen Pregnancy. I mean why not I don't think Bristol Palin was even close to Valedictorian in her class and she got one. But I'm not sure she'll do as well on Dancing with the Stars.

      July 27, 2011 at 8:46 am | Report abuse |
  6. spikelanta

    back when i was in high school, I was lucky if my grades were high enough to be on the honor roll, actually getting into an AP class or become valedictorian looked like something that would only happen in dreams.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:30 am | Report abuse |
  7. Butch

    Come on folks...this is ARKANSAS...know for it's racist bigotry in the past, present and unfortuantely future. Because so many from Arkansas are backward, uneducated hillbillies, they'll continue to teach their children to hate and be damn proud of it. Churches from all over Arkansas should be standing up for this young woman...why aren't they??...because they know they'd loose members (and therefore, money) from their church members. Racism is as mainstream in Arkansas as apple pie for dessert. Arkansas will never change....it will always be a backward, hillbilly state.

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

      Black people are the racist ones. They have their own beauty pageants and TV channels. We do that and its "oh you guys are racist!!!"

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

      Butch, you do not add to the debate by flaming the people of Arkansas, merely prove that prejudice runs through you, as well.

      Bob, there is a huge difference between taking a little bit of space free from the oppressor and the oppressor claiming a right to oppress. African Americans (and African Canadians) are not given placement or respect on whitestream media and so felt the need to set something up that better reflected them. Caucasian Americans wanting more of that dominance is just more and more of the same old segregation.

      July 27, 2011 at 8:46 am | Report abuse |
  8. Libtard

    Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Houston) said that the only way Africans can ever improve their lives is by filing a lawsuit whenever they get a chance.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:33 am | Report abuse |
  9. JohnQ1962

    What a Dufus you are. To make such honors with a child shows that she was passionate about learning. Had she dropped out all together then you point would have been made.
    With that being said, go away.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:33 am | Report abuse |
  10. bob

    “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.”

    Yeah so, whats the problem?

    July 27, 2011 at 8:34 am | Report abuse |
    • ofCanada

      If you can't see it, you need way more education than you'll get off the internet. Go look this stuff up in a library and check yourself out some books.

      July 27, 2011 at 8:48 am | Report abuse |
  11. Denise

    LOL...as I read through these comments, I realize how ignorant people really are. What's funny is the majority of you didn't have the grades to even go to college. Just stay in your little box and keep working your little job and pay your little bills. In the meantime, I'm happy and headed to the bank to make another deposit. Smooches.

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

      What are you talking about????

      July 27, 2011 at 8:48 am | Report abuse |
  12. BlackGuy

    The reason she was snubbed was because she got pregnant. And for those who make comments about blacks crying racism all the time. Most blacks don't say anything but unfortunately racism sells so when it happens it makes news. Most of the black people I know are more likely to dismiss her claims or not even care. Believe it or not we don't all get together and decide to play the race card.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:36 am | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      OK Skippy.

      Where is the Al Sharpton/Jessie Jackson countdown clock?

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

    $75,000! Well, that would be almost enough to pay for college tuition. I wonder how she came up with that sum. I once had a teacher tell me that I wasn't as smart as my brother. Looking back, I should have sued. Maybe I could have got a free ride to college and money to pay for therapy.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:36 am | Report abuse |
    • Carter

      With her GPA, she probably has SEVERAL academic scholarships at her disposal. Also, when you consult an attorney about being wronged, the first thing they do is put a monetary value on it because that is how they get paid. No attorney is going to work billable hours (which could total in the thousands) just to get an apology note. Attorneys know no one likes negative attention so their tactic is to "take the show on the road" in an effort to get the other side to settle for a fraction of the original suit (mainly to pay attorney fees) and make the case quietly go away. So the money may not be her reason for fighting for what she thinks she is right.

      July 27, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Tyrone

    Why are we balck popel always da viktam?

    July 27, 2011 at 8:36 am | Report abuse |
    • 3DThought

      No Tyrone, you're the victim here...SMH

      July 27, 2011 at 8:39 am | Report abuse |
  15. David

    @I Can Count: Not all schools use weighted scores when determining GPA for purposes of class ranking even if they give you your weighted score. Not all colleges accept your weighted score and want your unweighted score.

    Also someone posted about being valedictorian being important for being college bound? How so? And what difference would having a co-valedictorian be?

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