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. Alex

    I don't doubt her for a bit. They tried to do the same at my high school. My friend Juan and I were both 4.0 students and had been since elementary school, but the principal tried to make Juan the salutatorian because he had supposedly taken a lighter course load. They based this on the fact that I had taken physics while he had taken a study hall hour. He and I both agreed that something was a little fishy, and it's no secret that anti-Mexican sentiments run deep in our school district. We had to get counselors, the super, the school board, etc. involved before the idiot principal would change her mind.

    This has downstream implications, because valedictorians get a much bigger scholarship for their accolade than do salutatorians. That didn't matter for Juan, because he went into officer training for the Marines, but the fact remains.

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

      Assuming you aren't simply lying through your teeth, what's your basis for saying "valedictorians get a much bigger scholarship award than salutatorians?" Have you filled out a FAFSA? Nothing about class rank there. Only a few schools offer purely merit bases scholarships (the Ivy Leagues BAR merit scholarships), but the distinction between ranks 1 and 2 is insignificant.

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

    Its probably because her name is kimberly wimberly....

    July 27, 2011 at 9:37 am | Report abuse |
  3. Rhapsody

    @Johan:
    No, I'm half black, but you have just proved another point:
    You just can't fix stupid.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:37 am | Report abuse |
  4. T

    So when did grades have anything to do with it? When a "minority" student is accepted ahead of a white student with better grades it's because of diversity. When the reverse happens it's a crime.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:37 am | Report abuse |
  5. coder

    Arkansas' educational system is in the stone age. I've been thru that school system and it wasnt until I got into a better school, in another state – that I was educated with truth... The things they were teaching – were flat out wrong, out of date, and or had a single minded point of view. (The southern white plantation owner point of view)... This girl has a right to sue!!

    July 27, 2011 at 9:37 am | Report abuse |
  6. Laughing

    She is right she should be upset because she is black. I even feel sorry for her.... Wish I was black so I could sue somebody so I could sit at home for awhile. This working 2 jobs for the past 4 yrs is killing me.

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

      This receiving two welfare checks is killing me lolz

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

    Not so sure if this issue is as racially motivated as Ms. Wimberly claims and that she should get $75k in punitive damages, but I would definitely be upset if I had to share my valedictorian status with another student that had a lower GPA than me. I honestly think the race card gets played way way way too much which numbs people to it making it a shame for those who do bring up claims that are truly racially motivated. Anyway, major kudos to this young lady for earning the highest GPA. In my eyes, she is the only valedictorian at that school. I'm sure that she will go on to do great things!

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

      I DID share valedictorian status. Why in the world is it a reason to be upset. We aren't talking about one student with a 99.5 average sharing it with a 90. The difference was 0.02. It's not uncommon for schools to have co-valedictorians to avoid UNFAIRNESS. Someone taking a slew of AP classes who is decimal points beneath someone who did not should not be penalized. The decision took nothing AWAY from Kimberly.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:46 am | Report abuse |
    • Andrew

      I agree but if her claims about participation in AP classes being dependent on public discouragement and private encourage of certain parties, I think it deserves to be addressed.

      Plus, it was pretty foul that the school system tried to deny her mother the opportunity to speak at the school board meeting on a technicality. These low level bureaucrats play these cheap and disingenuous political tricks on average people never expecting them to have the gumption to do anything about... Yeah, well now it's time to lawyer up!

      July 27, 2011 at 9:51 am | Report abuse |
    • Andrew

      They were both taking AP classes and the other girl had a half credit more than her.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Carolyn

      As a high school counselor with over 20 years experience, I must say that this student's lack of grace and generosity saddens me and speaks more to me of a decaying sense of selflessness, tolerence and community with fellow students. We have several school valedictorians at our graduation every year. If a student takes AP or IB courses and has a 4.00 GPA or better, they are named a school valedictorian. They each give a speech and stand together on the platform. They share their sense of accomplishment with all their classmates.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:58 am | Report abuse |
    • Marie

      Most likely you are white and have never had racial discrimination against you. I always find it funny that people will always say that the race card is played way to much when they have hardly ever or never for that matter experienced real racism. I went to a school where there was a lot of brilliant African American students but the teachers would not put those students in the forefront. When approached about it they replied "Well we never have had blacks in cheer leading or show choir or these other areas in the school. its just not done." This wasn't in the 1940's. It was in the 90's. So no the race card is not just being pulled. we who live through it are highly offended by your flippant disregard of what we go through everyday!

      July 27, 2011 at 9:58 am | Report abuse |
    • sbp

      Andrew, no doubt if there was "steering" of minorities away from AP, it should be addressed. But that's a separate issue than crying over sharing an honor over a statistically insignificant difference. She should have been gracious about it.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:00 am | Report abuse |
  8. Craig

    Valedictorian and Salutorian. Unless they have the same GPA the higher GPA should have been the Valedictorian and the next highest GPA the Salutatorian. Easy as that.

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

      Exactly! That's how I thought it was done. How many times do you hear of 2 gold medals for the same category in the olympics?

      July 27, 2011 at 9:47 am | Report abuse |
    • Michael

      Except that it's not as easy as that. Someone taking the maximum number of AP classes (let's say for example that is 4) and the maximum number of total classes (let's say 7) who gets straight A's will have a LOWER GPA than a person taking the maximum number of AP classes but fewer total classes (lets say 6). The student with 7 classes would get a 4.42 GPA and the student with 6 would get a 4.5 GPA. So you punish the student for taking a larger work load and reward the other student for taking a free period.

      That is exactly what is happening here, except the school wised up and decided to give the person with the larger work load co-valedictorian. If I were principal, I would have made the student with more total credits valedictorian and the student with fewer credits salutatorian.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:54 am | Report abuse |
  9. Scott Pilgrim beat The World

    While it seems like a petty case, she IS in the right. Being a valedictorian is about the numbers, not race or your number of children.

    Basically, the school screwed up, and got caught.

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

      No, it's not that simple, and as a valedictorian, she at least should have recognized the concept of statistically insignificant variance and weighting averages for course difficulty. If this had not been the policy at the outset, she would have a case.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Michael

      GPA is not the only statistic. The other student has more total credits and the same number of AP classes. And both have straight A's. So you are saying you will punish the student who takes on a larger work load. I say reward the student with the larger work load and demote this girl to salutatorian.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:58 am | Report abuse |
  10. marc

    Man this is one of the rough things that happen in life. I don't know enough to say whether the girl was wronged or not but I did take a few things away that I would like to share in case anyone else didn't notice.

    1. It's great that an issue is coming up where blacks are demanding to be challenged in school. For far too long in places like south Dallas (using this as example cause I've seen it first hand) with a majority of blacks have given their students 55% just for showing up! Of course the grade only goes up from their if you participate. This really leaves these kids at a disadvantage once they get out and have to compete.

    2. Some white people need to quit antagonizing the racial issue, we get it this one was a reacher, don't say things just to anger people so you can get a good laugh. It's insensitive.

    3. Some black people seem to latch on to anything and act live its the "great plight of the black man", get over it dude this was a black principle that made the decision and their GPA was in fact very close, with the other student having taken extra classes. Even if it was a half of a credit, she was only beat by 0.03. Weighs out pretty close to me.

    4. Since when did having a baby as a teen our of wedlock become an honorable thing? Not to sound insensitive but I would word it that she accomplished these great things despite having these added responsibilities. So should our AP students start having babies out of wedlock to boost their chances of success, because hey everyone likes a story like this and the girls that kept her legs closed is in a dead tie with the one who didn't. Under this logic she should go out and get pregnant. This is not a good path for us obviously.

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

    Good lawsuit, i support them and wish them the best of luck!
    Congratulations on being the BEST in your class! Nobody can take that away from you girl.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:39 am | Report abuse |
  12. Bill

    Yeah, black people can't get anywhere here in the US. Maybe one day we will be able to elect a black president.

    What?? We already have done that? There goes my argument. Same with this one.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:40 am | Report abuse |
  13. Tay

    Whites always trying to take something from a black! RACE card my foot!!!!! Yall prejudice and that's the bottom line. She's smarter than the whites accept it.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:41 am | Report abuse |
    • Veritas

      Tay,

      I won't even start to get into all the grammatical and spelling errors in your comment. Shut up before you make yourself look even more ignorant...

      July 27, 2011 at 9:54 am | Report abuse |
    • Seeking Understanding

      Seriously.....really....I can't believe this is what some people still allow themselves to believe. OMG! This looks very much like an honor issue, not a race issue.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:04 am | Report abuse |
    • really...

      You sound more racist than the people being sued. "She's smarter than the whites" really... jeesh people amaze me...

      July 27, 2011 at 10:08 am | Report abuse |
  14. Mr. Brightside

    If she's so smart, why was she knocked up in high school?

    July 27, 2011 at 9:41 am | Report abuse |
  15. nimesh

    Unbelievable and very sad. For those who do not know, this is the very essence of, and a case study in discrimination.

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