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. unbelievable stuff

    The same thing happened to my Great GrandMother , She had the highest GPA so they decided not to have the Valedictorian Ceremony that year. She was the only black student in the school. LOL LOL , I know, It had nothing to do with race. Same BS different Year.

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

    it's good to see her stand up and make a case; she thinks she was wronged, and she may be right; let her make her case...the American way.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:45 am | Report abuse |
  3. James

    I graduated in 1995, I took several AP class and finished 6th in my class with a weighted GPA of 4.06, with the highest being only 4.10. The top 5 was all female, 3 whites and 2 blacks. To add to the fact the school was only 23% black. So I am sure she got her weighted and un-weighted GPA mixed up. She probably had the highest un-weighted, but if it was like my school the weighted determine class standings.
    My daughter now goes to a school where is she is the minority, 25% of the population in the county is white. Guess what, still more whites finishing in the top 10, why? It is simple, whites are having fewer kids therefore more attention is given to each kid.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:47 am | Report abuse |
  4. SeiferGanon

    Is this for real? The schools's policy is not law, and it is not enforceable as such. Ultimately it is the job of the school board to appoint who, if anyone, will be valedictorian. Heck, if they felt like it, they could make the kid at the bottom be the valedictorian. And it is not even like she is no longer valedictorian, so I fail to see what the problem is here.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:47 am | Report abuse |
  5. sparky91

    So this is how the chasm of net worth is going to get better? Sue sue sue!

    July 27, 2011 at 9:48 am | Report abuse |
  6. mike

    Even with a child young black girl prevailed. Funny how white folks complain about the race card when they change the rules in order to benefit their own. I hope she sues the socks off the school district and the principal. I guess white folks will never stop being the ignorant folks they are.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:49 am | Report abuse |
    • really...

      Again as I stated on another post... don't you think you are being racist saying that all white people are ignorant and that We will never stop... Get a grip guy... grow up!

      July 27, 2011 at 10:10 am | Report abuse |
  7. S.R

    I live in Wichita, ks where the chief of police is black, the mayor is black and guess what our president is black. The time for racism is over. If this girl was treated unfairly because of color she should get justice. What also should be considered about racism is prejudice against white people. I grew up facing torment and torture from the black students. If you were white and walked down the wrong hall you would get jumped. I know this is a fairly common occurrence in many schools. However you never here about it. Fair is fair for everyone!!!

    July 27, 2011 at 9:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Jray84

      I used to live in DC and Chicago, and the harassment from black kids against kids of other races was terrible, much worse than any other group. Its this kind of treatment that brought about the civil rights movement, but modern blks don't want to admit any fault of their own. The double standard is getting ridiculous. Its time for blks to cop to their racism.

      The problem I feel is that they feel justified in their racism, even though blaming modern people for something people did in the past is still racism.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:02 am | Report abuse |
    • babykitty

      So true!

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

      I live in Chicago and am white and out of the 20 times or so I have been harassed on the street, it's been about 16 times by blacks, 3 by Mexicans and 1 by a white kid. The press doesnt even cover much of the black-on-white crime which while not a 'hate crime' is still, often, in my opinion, racially motivated.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:09 am | Report abuse |
  8. Sam

    As for the rule where students "who are taking more or harder classes will not be penalized" in the class ranking...Class ranking is based off of one number: your GPA. If you take hard classes and your GPA suffers for it, thats the choice you've made. Class ranking is not based on what kind of classes you take, whether or not you overcame more obstacles, or anything else besides GPA. Since this girl's GPA is higher, she deserves to be valedictorian. End of story. Congratulations, Wimberly. However, I do have to ask, how is being falsely named 'co-valedictorian' worth 75 grand? Just wondering. Seems to me that they should set the record straight, giver her idk... 5 grand for damages, and be done with it.

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

      Gee, it would be "end of story" if you weren't FLAT OUT WRONG. The FACT is, MOST schools absolutely DO take into account advanced classes and base rank on a weighted average (some do it in addition to straight average). My son had a 103.58 average, the valedictorian had a 104.1 average. Which would not have been possible with a non-weighted average.

      But thanks for the ignorance. End of story.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:56 am | Report abuse |
    • Teacher

      Actually, this is incorrect. Many school districts "weigh" classes to account for the difficulty issue. For example, in a regular class an A is worth 4 points, but in an AP Class, an A is worth 4.5 or even 5 points. This makes perfect sense from an academic standpoint. If a student takes Calculus and makes a "B", but another student takes General Math and makes an "A", most can see that the Calculus student has learned more higher level math than the General Math student. If academic rigor is not evaluated in the scoring system, students will take the easiest load possible to try to keep up the GPA. Sounds like someone is playing the race card without examining the facts. JMHO

      July 27, 2011 at 10:08 am | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      Hey Sam, you make no sense. If she want to sue for $75,000 thats her choice, you dont or cannot decide what she get for her damage. Bet you a a Black person who NEVER want to see your own color survive. I was surprised she was only sueing for $75,000. No one knows what she is going through until you are in her shoes.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:13 am | Report abuse |
  9. k8

    If you read this article, it sounds like they have a weighted grading system, which means that those students who take extra study halls and PE classes won't be regarded as highly as someone who has finished calculus, physics and a semester of college. Besides that, there were no monetary damages here. I'm sure they'll still get the same scholarships regardless.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:51 am | Report abuse |
  10. JillyX

    The extent to which CNN commenters reflexively take the white person's side would be comical if it weren't so sad. I would love to see the comments on the exact same story where the complainant was white and the co-valedictorian was black. I suspect many of you would be railing about the unfairness of it all to the poor valedictorian and going on rants about affirmative action. The black person is automatically the bad guy according to CNN commenters. BTW, Kymberly Wimberly is an awesome name.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:54 am | Report abuse |
    • Just a thought

      If it happened the other way it wouldn't make the news. Stories like this are why my kids are in private schools.

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

      Just a thought, if the situation was reversed it would definitely make FOX NEWS. So don't say that.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:01 am | Report abuse |
  11. Joe

    Will Miss Wimberly give back the extra scholarship money she received because of her minority status? Will she give back the money us taxpayers paid out to pay for her unwed pregnancy?

    July 27, 2011 at 9:55 am | Report abuse |
    • Peri

      Wow, so many stereotypes and assumptions. Let me try: How does it feel being stuck in that double-wide trailer? When will your name be removed from the s*x offenders registry? Was your father a pedophile too?

      Doesn't feel so good does it?

      July 27, 2011 at 10:11 am | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      Joe u dont work so shut up. Dont worry about tax payers money and where it is going. get a Job, life and stop making unnecessary comments.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:18 am | Report abuse |
  12. WilemWalace

    I'm happy that I'm a minority.....with every transgression, no matter how slight, I just say "it's because I'm black, isn't it?" I love seeing the fear in white folks eyes when I say that.

    keep it coming....as long as they're on their heels, there's a chance we might be taken seriously one day.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:56 am | Report abuse |
    • But...

      you are white.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:03 am | Report abuse |
    • WilemWalace

      typical....another white guy thinking I must be white because I've learned the language.

      shall I drop into ebonics?

      who says racism is dead....you people and your preconceived notions pretty much suck.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:09 am | Report abuse |
  13. Jon

    Many of you seem to have not read the article. In the article it says that in determining class rank if an individual is taking "more or harder" classes than another, rank can be equated even if the GPA was lower. The white girl had a very slightly lower GPA, but also took one half more credit. Thus the equivalency.

    It sounds like despite her GPA, this girl is not very smart. Although I'm sure she is still smarter than most of the commentators on here.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:56 am | Report abuse |
  14. mjh59

    "...difference in the students' GPAs was .03 or .05. Gathen said the outcome would have been the same were the situations reversed." yeah right.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:56 am | Report abuse |
  15. JillyX

    Setting aside the vileness of your whole response, it was her MOTHER who made a mistake on the form and it sounds like they were looking for any excuse to silence her until after graduation.

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