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. interesting

    I bet she took off time for the kid to be born and raised some issues about getting preferential treatment for single moms with regard to her upper level classes.

    The kid who was in school ALL YEAR probably felt slighted that another student gets to go on maternity leave, get easy treatments, and be #1 in the class.

    THIS IS NOT ABOUT RACE – WHY IS SHE ASKING FOR MONEY??????

    July 27, 2011 at 9:09 am | Report abuse |
  2. Valdictorian

    Obviously no one on this comment board, nor Ms. Wimberly herself, understands the mathematical concept of significant figures. The differnce in GPA was "0.03 or 0.05". Presumably, the school only reports grades to one decimal place (e.g. 4.0) . So claiming that 3.94 is higher than 3.91 is completely spurious. The two valedictorians DID have the same GPA. Just because your calculator or Excel gives you fifteen decimal places, doesn't mean that they are significant.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:10 am | Report abuse |
    • guest

      both my high school and college reported GPA 2 decimal places out.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:14 am | Report abuse |
  3. Engrish

    “That’s what were good at that that’s what we should stick to – that’s the mentality of McGehee.”

    I'd like to buy an apostrophe. And a period. Or possibly a hyphen. I take it the writer was not valedictorian or, more likely, even a high school graduate.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:11 am | Report abuse |
  4. ManEagle

    hmmm... I wasn't elected as valedictorian when I graduated from high-school 12 years ago. Do you think I have a case? Think about all the lost opportunities I could have had...

    This whole story reeks of BS and threatens to open a can of worms!! They can't set a precedent to this then we'll have people all over the place suing b/c they weren't made valedictorian. Is being a high school valedictorian really worth 75k? I think not

    July 27, 2011 at 9:11 am | Report abuse |
    • R

      Not just valedictorian... co-valedictorian... is valedictorian vs co-valedictorian worth $75k? Of course not. But if this frivolous lawsuit goes forward and guilt allows her to win then I guess they'll just have lay off a few teachers and cut back on quality materials and this bch will be responsible for future generations of drop-outs.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:27 am | Report abuse |
  5. JoeShmoe

    I'm amazed that you were able to find a computer down at the trailer park AND was able to compose a coherent, error-free sentence. I guess Grammar For Dummies must be an excellent book!

    July 27, 2011 at 9:12 am | Report abuse |
  6. stacie

    whether she had a child during the school year or not if she has the highest score then she should get it...this forum is full of hateful people...also no one knows why or how she became pregnant....and it doesn't matter cause she still made sure her grades were up...and she still attended school....when i think we are getting somewhere i find we are not...i'm from arkansas and honestly the pine bluff area is largely black and i am shocked that they would try something like this in that town....it is very likely that the principle is black but what he did is still racist...jacksonville high school in jacksonville, ar still does something like this...they have a white homecoming queen and a black maid of honor every year in order to MAKE IT FAIR...heck i'm white and i think it should be whomever the class chooses...but i think they think they are being fair...but what about the asian students and students of other races...not smart

    July 27, 2011 at 9:12 am | Report abuse |
    • Work harder and then lose?

      So basically a person can take easy courses and get a 4.0 on seriously cheap courses, and someone who takes all AP classes but gets a B+ in one class... is NOT the Val? This rule is designed to make sure the Val is someone who applied and worked hard. The Co-Val has a .0X decimal difference and a HALF credit more. So clearly she is not BETTER than this girl, but clearly this girl is NOT better than the other. Co-Val sounds good.
      My Sister had best GPA in her HS and did not get Val.
      My Father had best GPA in his Post Grad school and didnt get Val.
      Both are White.

      July 27, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Pete

    If the white kid with lower grades wasn't mentioned at the ceremony as valedictorian either, her case has one big hole in it.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:15 am | Report abuse |
  8. growingdandelions

    I am absolutely disgusted by all the racist comments on this story. I say she has a legitimate complaint. She should be recognized as the sole valedictorian. She earned it. So what if she has a child! As a mother, I say that makes her achievement even more significant! She worked harder than any student who isn't a parent, and she STILL earned the highest GPA. She's an inspiration, and she's setting a good example for her child. Give her what she's is due. Valedictorian status, and RESPECT!

    July 27, 2011 at 9:16 am | Report abuse |
    • TTommy

      Not that's rich. A racist calling out others as racists. Your comments and accusations speak for themselves. Second, what's wrong with a little grace? Why not share the honor since there's a clear and obvious dispute? Is that so bad? I hope she finds a nice racist law firm to work with when she graduates from college. She's toxic and would be last person I'd ever hire. She's a sue bird in training. Maybe she can study under Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:33 am | Report abuse |
    • Marcin

      nobody said she wasnt valedictorian. My high school had four. The question is, what harm came to her that the school had two? there wasnt a monetary prize. her resume still says "valedictorian" nobody would have ever cared or asked if there were other valedictorians so what harm came to her? a bruised ego? I applaud her for getting top honors, especially since she is a mother. Without bringing race into it, i also applaud her for getting top honors as a black woman, only because statistically that is significant. I boo her for everything else.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:33 am | Report abuse |
    • MikeC

      The case is policy not one of color. She didnt have the same credits by half a point. And the difference was small in overall grade. If the school is anything like my highschool then the teachers wouldnt have to discourge the black population which was like 50% very much. They would be lucky if 25% showed up for a full week.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:35 am | Report abuse |
  9. Rhapsody

    She may have had the baby her freshman year.
    That's irrelevant.
    She didn't say SHE was told not to take the classes.
    She *heard* it.
    Rumor.
    So THAT's irrelevant.
    She was told by her guidance counselor.
    Perhaps the guidance counselor didn't know that there was another student named co-valedictorian.
    She had the highest gpa.
    However, the student handbook states that's not the only consideration.
    It sounds to me like they jumped the gun in announcing the valedictorian status.
    Her mother works for the media department...
    connect the dots there.
    Mama was told her daughter had the highest GPA; not that she was valedictorian.
    I guess it was assumed...
    In this situation, all things being equal, there should be two valedictorians.
    And there are.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:16 am | Report abuse |
    • Johan

      I connected another dot, rather a blot. You are white.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:33 am | Report abuse |
  10. dd

    So even people who are highly intelligent don't know enough to use birth control to prevent pregnancy- interesting!

    July 27, 2011 at 9:20 am | Report abuse |
    • sueinpennsylvania

      I must not have read the story correctly. Where did it say she got pregnant becuase she DID NOT use birth control? Were you there? Did you witness her not using birth control? Maybe she did...maybe it failed.. In other words, don;t make assumptions.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:28 am | Report abuse |
    • really?

      The ability to use birth control is not one of intelligence. It's one of privilege. The ignorant point you're trying to make is irrelevant in a suit on racial discrimination; unless, of course, you want to point out that minorities in this nation (those who are primarily discriminated against) also tend to be less privileged and therefore don't have the choice to use birth control.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:37 am | Report abuse |
    • Peri

      That's true. And they come in all races-even yours.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:39 am | Report abuse |
    • money

      Birth control isn't 100% effective. Ask your mom

      July 27, 2011 at 9:39 am | Report abuse |
  11. Guest2

    I live in what is often considered a "southern" state. I can thoroughly believe that a school district in this age would still encourage preferential treatment of white students in course selection and recognition of achievement. Those who think that this just doesn't happen any more obviously don't reside in areas where bigotry is still the norm and couples of mixed race are still threatened with physical violence. I grew up in a "northern" state, where my brother's best friend was black, and he experienced no repercussions from it. I doubt my grandson would have the same outcome where I live now, 45 years later. I think a rigorous examination of the racial breakdown of the AP classes in this school district will tell the story. This girl may not be making her claim in the best fashion, but it is certainly possible that it has merit and should be addressed. In many places, the only way to get attention is to attack the bottom line!

    July 27, 2011 at 9:21 am | Report abuse |
  12. andrea

    all yall talking about is her child and her absences. obviously she didnt take too much off of school if she still got the highest gpa. so gone somewhere with that. leave the innocent baby out of it. some of you guys are making rude comments about this girl and dont even know her. my family always taught me judge yourself before you judge others. meaning look at all the wrong u doing before you look at somebody else's faults.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:21 am | Report abuse |
    • Brandon

      I read that in my mind with a ghetto voice-over. Looks like it's pretty fitting with how you throw words together to form what looks to be a really long sentence.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:38 am | Report abuse |
  13. lolumad

    -Sole Valedictorian does matter. The university I attend offers a Valedictorian scholarship of $5000/yr PER HIGH SCHOOL. As in, if the second best guy was also awarded co-Valedictorian, and he attends the same university (which he does) we would both only get 2.5k/yr each. Fortunately I was the best of the best and also received a full tuition scholarship, so that 5k/yr goes towards designer jeans, clubbing, bonin', and ownin'. ROFL
    -She is dumb to drag race into the issue. Keep it a strict academic issue. Her being black and her pregnancy has nothing to do with her being Valedictorian. Highest GPA makes her sole Valedictorian.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:22 am | Report abuse |
    • MikeC

      Boy for being the brightest in the class you sure have a hard time reading the article. They said GPA is not the only facture in the decision. As it should be. You take harder classes you should be rewarded and have it factured in. .03-.05 is the GPA difference. So less than half of 1 tenth of a point. And the fact is she had a lower credit count. Policy is still policy. She is just pushing the race card because that is the only card she has. How else do you overturn this? What if the other co-val was black. What would she do then?

      July 27, 2011 at 9:47 am | Report abuse |
  14. Adam

    @walter, you read it wrong, Gathen referred that had the other student had a .03 to .05 difference with difference in classes then Wimberly would have still been co-valedictorian.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:23 am | Report abuse |
  15. R. Mussared

    I am so tired of people throwing the race card!

    July 27, 2011 at 9:25 am | Report abuse |
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