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. ZMEEKER

    Do not worry. She will excel at university, get a good job in local or state government, then affected life-long by her twisted and misguided victim mentality laden thought process supported by family, peer group and culture, misappropriate public funds, get caught, be indicted, become NAACP poster child for a year while awaiting trial and then be sent to prison like so many more just like her.

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

      I've never seen the truth stated so beautifully.

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

      And all the while, you'll remain an armchair, underachieving, insecure racist hoping that your fairytale comes true. It won't though. This lady will become far more successful than you or yours ever will be. In your heart of hearts, you know that don't you.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:43 am | Report abuse |
  2. Thinking7

    Another racial article without hard facts? Please stop writing such divisive material. First, let the court decide.

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

      Let the courts decide? You may not have a problem with being called to jury duty to satisfy a petulant young lady's self perceived crusade on racial justice and equality, but the rest of us have better things to do. Like work and make a living,

      July 27, 2011 at 9:41 am | Report abuse |
  3. dutspup

    This is not news and we dont have all the facts, I love how CNN puts BS stories like this on the front page soliciting comments and getting the public al riled up over, basically nothing. The way this went down there are rightfully two valedictorians and once again we have to bend over for a black person because they assume they are still represt, PUKE!

    July 27, 2011 at 9:26 am | Report abuse |
    • really?

      I believe you mean "repressed".

      July 27, 2011 at 9:40 am | Report abuse |
  4. Marcell

    My nephew is African American and he was class valedictorian and class president. The problem he encountered was even with these two very note worthy distinctions he was not offered many scholarships. The scholarships he did receive were very limited. A white student would have received multiple full ride scholarships. I know, I have seen it happen. My sister and her husband had to come out of pocket to send him to Michigan State. He is now an engineer and making mad cash. He lives in Detroit, so its not just a southern thing. Racism is alive and well all over this great country.

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

      Ok, I have to disagree with that. I know people who were offered scholarships and people who weren't and difference always comes done to RESEARCH. I don't know of ANY capable black student who studied engineering who didn't receive funding. I'm betting that along with that impressive resume was a much less than stellar SAT score :-/

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

      Yeah, it's all about race right? There are TONS of high schools all across this nation each with a valedictorian and a class president. Most are not that great of students; because some schools are better then others. The reality is that there are FEW scholarships to go around, in fact, I know very few people of any ethnicity, race, or gender who received one. A 4.0 GPA just means you didn't try hard enough; unless you're pushing the 5.0 boundary you'll never be considered for one if you only have academics. Add in sports super star, club founders, and community service provider and THEN you might get noticed.

      I paid my own way, I got $0.00 in financial aid besides student loans. My good friend who is a minority, poor, multiple kids trying to pay for college, and a 4.0 average got a whopping $100 in scholarship funds. Her sister had to drop out to get a job to pay for her to go to school.

      Race often doesn't play a role. Just because it looks that way, doesn't mean it is. Don't think that all white kids get free rides, most don't get anything at all. Yes there are idiots who are biased; and I'm all for calling them out. But far too often there are other factors that come into play and people immediately jump to the race card. Guess what, sometimes it's just because you're not good enough. All you can do is prove that you're better then they are regardless of the hand that you've been dealt. Keeping someone down because of their race, gender, or anything that you happen to not "like" is wrong; but so it using it as an excuse to keep justifying your own inadequacies.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:57 am | Report abuse |
  5. Craig

    Whats wrong with a Salutatorian? No need for co Valedictorian. Give her the distinction she worked so hard to attain.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:28 am | Report abuse |
  6. Zeke2112

    What a joke. Not enough to be recognized as the best, you have to be the SOLE best. Someone get this woman some self esteem.

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

      exactly right!

      July 27, 2011 at 9:41 am | Report abuse |
  7. Gadsden

    Now that's affirmative action. How's it feel when the shoe is on the other foot.

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

      It "feels" like you're a racist.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:38 am | Report abuse |
    • JB!

      Wait, her name was Kymberly Wimberly? HA!!! But back on track, if she got preggo in high school she obviously isn't very smart. Thought valedictorian was more than GPA...

      July 27, 2011 at 9:45 am | Report abuse |
    • Dirk Waldon

      Don't worry ALL the whites will be her shoes within twenty five years. Especially after the Chinese control this economy and the Iowa corn and wheat will be worth peanuts. Then see who will be zooming who...

      July 27, 2011 at 9:47 am | Report abuse |
  8. j

    Stop pulling the race card, maybe the principle had other reasons. Just because he is white and the other girl is white does not mean they are racist. Contrary to popular belief not all white are racist...... or born rich.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:31 am | Report abuse |
    • Harry McRae

      They might not all be racist but many can spell. You meant principal not principle.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:42 am | Report abuse |
    • Syirrus

      Just most lol just kidding

      July 27, 2011 at 9:43 am | Report abuse |
  9. texasgoat

    I think the school awards GPA honorary GPA points for being a good citzen and not staddling taxpayers with your illegitimate child.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:31 am | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      I'm betting your GPA never broke the 2.0 mark, huh?

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

      Being from Tex-ass you probably couldn't spell GPA, huh.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:49 am | Report abuse |
  10. Symera

    I hope she takes the school ditstrict to the cleaners!! GO GET THEM KYMBERLY – DO NOT BACK DOWN ON THIS!!

    July 27, 2011 at 9:31 am | Report abuse |
    • RJL80

      Gee......let me guess......why would you make a comment like that???.....hummmm.......

      July 27, 2011 at 9:37 am | Report abuse |
  11. Becker

    It disgusts me that girls like Kymberly Wimberly (no comment on the name) try to complian about race. Clearly the other valedictorian was going to be upset if they did not get recognition too and completed more credits with practically identifical GPAs. She obviously needs the money to support her child if she is asking for punitive damages but, give me a break! This girl is trying to take advantage of being a black teen mother in a rural town in Arkansas and I'm sick of hearing race used as an excuse.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:32 am | Report abuse |
  12. ark

    What if the co-valedictorian had been black, would she still be upset? If the school is correct and the grades average was just .03 from one another then I see no problem. Also, what were the students overall school life; were they both active in the school and community, sports, clubs, etc. Just my opinion, but some book worm who does nothing but study and doesn't participate in sports or other school activities shouldn't be valedictorian. This person is a representative of the best the school has to offer, so more than grades should be viewed to make this pick.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:32 am | Report abuse |
  13. Rhapsody

    Once again, highest gpa isn't the only consideration.
    This is absolutely silly.
    Of course she should be proud of her achievement, but gpa is not the only consideration.
    What don't people understand about that?

    July 27, 2011 at 9:34 am | Report abuse |
    • spm

      FULLY agree!!

      July 27, 2011 at 9:44 am | Report abuse |
  14. sittingstrong

    The fact is that it is a "white" man's world and they still control the world. If it was a white student this situation would not have happened. It is unfair since she had higher grades. Unfortunately racism still exists in this country. How would a white person know how racism feels they have more power than any other group in the world.

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

    I was a co-valedictorian at my high school (many years ago). There was one awarded based on straight average, one based on "weighted average" which took advanced courses into account. I had the highest weighted average. But my co-validictorian was not a student taking remedial classes – our averages were virtually statistically insignificant either way.

    The point is it would have been entirely selfish on my part to begrudge someone who was in essence just as qualified as I was to be given the honor. Nothing was taken from me. They didn't pull just any old schmo to share it just to insult me. So who cares?

    And the suggestions by others that this would affect her ability to get a scholarship is hogwash. Even today (my sone just got into a top University) College admission is pretty neutral when it comes to the top 10 or so students (especially since the top 10 are separated by perhaps a single point in GPA – all clustered around 100). At that level, extracurriculars and community service are more of a factor. And scholarships are almost entirely based on financial need; very few purely merit scholarships are out there.

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