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. Tracey

    I've heard stories of this happening at a lot of southern schools. The administration tries to hide the fact that a lot of them feel as though a black child shouldn't be valedictorian. I'm sure if the colors were reversed, this young girl wouldn't be going throuh this.

    July 26, 2011 at 6:41 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Hmmm

    Gee why do people pull the race card in situations like this? Oh yeah, because situations like this prove that RACISM is alive and well!

    July 26, 2011 at 6:41 pm | Report abuse |
  3. mypoint2012

    She will still be flipping burgers after her graduation. Is her situation better if she were a valedictorian flipping burgers? Black students have the upper hand: more scholarship available, affirmative action, people thinking that b/c they're black they are oppressed and should be given special treatment. Bohoo. Life is unfair. Deal with it and move on.

    July 26, 2011 at 6:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • tourguide83

      well said... blacks and hispanics in science get most of the scholarships, including medical schools and law schools. the funny part is, that I know several of black law students who couldn't pass bar exam even though they were the one who all received scholarships for being blacks. They work for government as lawyers but they don't even have bar exams passed to practice but they get paid verry well...

      July 27, 2011 at 12:24 am | Report abuse |
    • defragg

      You sound like a real Southern person... So glad, I didn't grow up in the South...

      July 27, 2011 at 1:25 am | Report abuse |
    • smp

      What? u can't practice law as an attorney if you didn't pass the bar? R u on something?

      July 27, 2011 at 1:29 am | Report abuse |
    • BBoy

      She is dealing with it...BY SUING FOR WHAT IS RIGHTFULLY HERS! It's amazing how racist people like you can be in 2011. Smh!

      July 27, 2011 at 9:24 am | Report abuse |
    • bburn

      Fairplay is fairplay! How many of your ancestors got jobs because they were white. She's just fighting for what was rightly hers. Besides many young mothers of today (black or white ) would have come back and finished school. She accomplished something , don't be jealous.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:36 am | Report abuse |
    • Megs148

      Your idiotic response just goes to prove why they made affirmative action in this country in the first place "Oh she black, she will be flipping burgers no matter what, never mind that she got the highest GPA while taking AP classes, she will still be flipping burgers cause she black". It'd be nice to not have people like you around so then we wouldn't have to deal with affirmative action in the first place.

      July 27, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Clayton Hall

      Such an upper hand that even with Affirmative Action, they're still underrepresented in colleges, even accounting for high school graduation rates.

      July 30, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
  4. yohanna

    when students get pregnant they typically get six weeks off. these are counted as absences. most high schools would not let a student with 30 absences be the valedictorian of their class. also when they are homeschooled for that duration their grades always increase as the coursework is easier. if she had good attendance then i would see why it is racist. otherwise no.

    July 26, 2011 at 6:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Can U Actually Read?!?!

      They mentioned attendance as part of the criteria and they did not say it was an issue. So instead of speculating that she was home schooled with easier work loads let's go the other direction..... Ever hear of people born in the summer?

      July 27, 2011 at 12:21 am | Report abuse |
    • defragg

      Course work is easier for home schooled children? Not in California...

      July 27, 2011 at 1:27 am | Report abuse |
    • Texasboy

      Yo'- you're an idiot.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:20 am | Report abuse |
    • Lola

      She was only out for three weeks, and returned in time to take her exams.

      July 27, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Hmm

    First nobody here has all the facts, but if it is as she says then she should get the $75k she seeks and the recognition she deserves. Here we have an issue (like the NCAA ranking system) where a student may be in tougher classes, but have a .03 difference in GPA, so the school decides to call it a tie. If this girl didn't listen to the teachers (if they actually tried to persuade black students not to take those classes) and took those classes and succeeded then good for her. All students should never believe when they're told they are no good. If she's saying she was "forced" into less advanced classes and had no choice then she should really get proof, because that is the basis of her case. I foresee a day when accolades are never given to anyone out of "fairness".

    July 26, 2011 at 6:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hunnit Thou

      Hey there are black teachers and administrators at that school.. Wouldn't this have come to light earlier if it's been going on for so long? Keep jumping through hoops... lol

      July 26, 2011 at 7:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      read it again, she mentions what happens to many black kids BUT she DID take the harder classes and they still tried to diminish her achievement.

      July 28, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
  6. supdawg

    she should sue her parents for that name

    July 26, 2011 at 6:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      +1

      July 27, 2011 at 8:58 am | Report abuse |
    • BBoy

      She should sue her parents because they named her Kymberly???

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

      Kymberly Wimberley......LOL

      July 27, 2011 at 9:46 am | Report abuse |
  7. John Monica

    She had the highest grades. Case closed. Having a child out of wedlock is irrelevant. She should, in fact, receive praise for accomplishing what she did as a single mother. While I would not want my child to get pregnant without being married, people who rise above adversity should be recognized, not condemned. Also, the claim for damages is likely a jurisdictional issue for the court she is in, not necessarily a money grab. Restore her status and I bet the whole thing goes away.

    July 26, 2011 at 6:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Melina319

      No, she does not deserve extra credit for overcoming her pregnancy. She got herself into that mess and doesn't deserve more credit than the students who didnt have children during their teenage years. If she violated the rules by not being continuously enrolled, then the other student deserves to be co-valedictorian. If she followed the rules, she deserves it alone, regarless of her status as a teenage mother.

      July 26, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • tcp

      The students who didn't get pregnant should be praised...

      July 27, 2011 at 7:47 am | Report abuse |
  8. OldTimeMentor

    What c0-valedictorian is this crap all about?? Never heard about such crap! If a student earned the highest average grade in all her academics, that is one strong case of being the valedictorian and the next one is salutatorian. Bull craps!!! I can't believe such a position would exist and I never heard such before in my 30 years of teaching high school. I believe this is racism.

    July 26, 2011 at 6:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • tcp

      You actually taught children? With that atrocious grammar?

      July 27, 2011 at 7:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Natalie

      My graduating class had co-valedictorians, if I remember correctly two women. So it really isn't unusual.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Grow up...

    Too much heresay.. Heresay alone will get you no where in court.

    DRAMA......

    July 26, 2011 at 6:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • LastDinosaur

      The word is "hearsay," and in federal courts (where sue sued) there is an exception for statements made by the opposing party. She can get the statements of the administrators in by including them as defendants in the suit, although realistically pretty much anything a teacher said would get in because it's not hearsay if it was said by an employee of the defendant (e.g., teachers) while on the job and the statement pertains to job-related matters.

      July 26, 2011 at 8:54 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    To me, numbers don't lie. I would have had a single valedictorian unless the GPA was exactly the same.
    I think that it was racial. The "moral" decision didn't help.
    It's the same as "I, Said the Cow" at an ultimately famous private school for girls where I taught when I was very young.
    We had a traditional production every Christmas. Everything at the school was a tradition.
    Young ladies (first grade) competed to sing a solo at the manger.
    One year two scholarships were given to urban students to aid cultural diversity, and auditions to sing to role of the cow in the manger were held.
    Guess who won the auditions.
    There was a great fuss, and, for the first time in the history of the school, "I, Said the Cow" was sung by all of the Class One girls in unison.

    July 26, 2011 at 6:54 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Hunnit Thou

    Honestly doesn't this happen all the time in college admissions except the shoe is on the other foot? What about that firefighter case where a higher scoring white cadet was passed over out of "fairness"? This country is such a mess. Everyone is being programmed by everyone around them to be so racially sensitive that we're all jumping through hoops while other's are capitalizing on our naivety.. Great job America..

    July 26, 2011 at 6:55 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Romany

    If a student has a 4.0, but has taken classes in General Education, with classes including sewing and choir, and a student who has a 3.95 gpa, but has taken all AP classes, including calculus and trig, who does the coveted spot go to?
    I know who I would award it to.
    Regardless of race.

    July 26, 2011 at 6:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Nice try–the PLAINTIFF (black girl) took the AP courses not the other girl. Credits are NOT GPA–the other girl ended up with 1/2 more credit than the black girl but had a lower GPA–from what is written BOTH took the AP courses–odds are the problem is the black girl's pregnancy–perhaps she took time off and THAT means she did not have the two continuous, non interrupted terms before she graduated–but if that was the case, she should not get valedictorian at all due to breaking known school rules. Kymberly in the future, if your grades are so important to you–hold off on opening your legs. Education first–play second.

      July 28, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
  13. roderick ronald roberts

    Nobody wants to pull the race "card" as the argot in vogue has put,becuse the problem IS about race!&i for 1 hopes That's A truth t hat1:she sues their pants off!2:that the"race card"helps the african-american people get the resect that is long overdue!&if u don't like what i have to say,forma line behind me&kiss my african-american butt!

    July 26, 2011 at 6:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • tcp

      Hyphenator. We'll never get beyond it as long as you keep stirring the pot.

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

      tcp- No, we'll never get beyond it as long as people like you think pretending an issue doesn't exist makes it so.

      July 30, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Don

    I can see who's pulling the race card, and it's not the people who are supporting the young woman standing up for what she deserves.

    July 26, 2011 at 6:57 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Romany

    "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"

    So.....students had the choice of taking the classes, correct?
    If they didn't oops, their fault.
    Why didn't they take the classes?
    And the students taken aside, and told that the classes weren't that bad...so?
    If this girl signed up for the class, and admin told her straight out she couldn't be in that class, then she's got a valid point.
    But not taking the classes, then whining about a girl who gets co-valedictorian who TOOK the classes?
    Please.
    Pull that race card.
    Which will be thrown out, because the school make-up is 46% black, anyway.
    Jeez, shut up.

    July 26, 2011 at 7:05 pm | Report abuse |
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