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. cindy

    IT DOESNT MATTER IF SHE IS A MOM OR NOT SHE IS NOT THE FIRST STUDENT TO HAVE A BABY IN SCHOOL AND SHE WANT BE THE LAST THIS IS HAPPENING ALL AROUND THE WORLD. BE THANKFUL THAT SHE GRADUATED BECAUSE A LOT OF STUDENT MOM DONT FINISH SCHOOL. AND ALSO HER MOM CANT WATCH HER 24HOURS A DAY. IT TAKE TWO PEOPLE TO CREATE A CHILD SO STOP BEING SO HARD ON HER. IF IT HAPPEN TO YOU WOULD YOU WANT SOMEONE TO JUDGE YOU. iN ALABAMA IF YOU HAD THE HIGHEST GPA IF YOU HAD A BABY OR NOT YOU WERE GIVEN YOUR AWARD FOR YOUR GRADES. ALSO HER MOM WORK FOR THAT SCHOOL SYSTEM AND SHE IS DOING RIGHT BY NOT LETTING THEM LOOK OVER HER DAUGHTER. I WOULD ONLY WANT THEM TO APOLOGIZE TO MY CHILD IT WOULD NOT BE ABOUT MONEY.

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

      Stop shouting! Caps Lock Off, please...

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

      Dear Cindy,
      Please learn proper English and grammer if you intend on posting comments.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:22 am | Report abuse |
  2. Brad Coil

    IF this is true. IF there is clear proof. . . . then this is an injustice and needs to be fixed. ESPECIALLY because of the things she overcame to get to this point. Oh, in case you wondered: I am a white man. Oh, also: I am a middle-aged white man. And no, I am not suffering from "white guilt." I am simply incensed by this. . . . . .if true.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:12 am | Report abuse |
  3. So

    once again the blacks didnt get their way and what happens, same as usual, its racism, well its time for the whites to shove it back in their faces, start by calling the blacks racist in all ways and lets file lawsuits against the feds for granting welfare for those of color over those of no color, time for the whites, indians and all others to stand up against the blacks who always screram racism, just like the racist welfare cry baby prez

    July 27, 2011 at 10:12 am | Report abuse |
    • Meetra

      Ah, shut up and go back to talking about things you know, like Nascar, Jimmy Dean pork products, and how to make out with your sister and not feel bad about it.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Jarod

      Ahhhh, the reasonings of a real mental case. So, your call to arms will not work.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:26 am | Report abuse |
  4. Bill

    Kim, valedictorian has to do with the highest RANKED student not the student with the highest morals or whatever pretentious label you want to put on it. Maybe you can get off your HIGHEST horse.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:12 am | Report abuse |
  5. David

    What is this "Race Card" people always like to mention? If you're actually discriminated against because of your skin color, how is that pulling the Race Card?

    It's reached the point where it seems like people expect you to shut up and just take racism and/or prejudice because the idea of it happening is just too uncomfortable for those who don't experience it daily.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:13 am | Report abuse |
    • Craog

      Excellent Point David. Ppeople think that if they can always claim someone is pulling the race card that blacks will shut up and take it out of fear. If someone is discriminated against then they should have the right to point it out. America is the greatest country on earth however lets not forget that it was built on racism, so why expect it to be totally gone at this point.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:29 am | Report abuse |
  6. jahmyrr

    because smart people cant make mistakes? can you give me directions to the perfect world you live in, because mines clearly not there yet...

    July 27, 2011 at 10:13 am | Report abuse |
  7. facts

    Why so many comments when you have not heard both sides to this story. Not ALL that is printed here is true, ya think?????

    July 27, 2011 at 10:14 am | Report abuse |
  8. Justin Cider

    Arkansas? Not even once...

    July 27, 2011 at 10:14 am | Report abuse |
  9. Michael

    When you have two students with straight A's, you have to consider total AP credits and total overall credits to determine who had the highest accomplishment, and not just GPA. I am going to repost an explanation I made last night, because some people are just not getting it:

    A person with straight A's taking 3 AP classes and 3 regular classes in a semester has a GPA of 4.5 ((5+5+5+4+4+4)/6). A person with straight A's taking 3 AP classes and 4 regular classes in a semester has a GPA of 4.42 ((5+5+5+4+4+4+4)/7). The person who takes on the bigger load has the lower GPA, but actually did better than the one who had the higher GPA because he took more classes and still got straight A's.

    That is exactly the situation here, although we are talking over a spread of eight semesters and not just one semester, so it's much closer. If anything the other person should have been awarded valedictorian over the girl suing the school. Now I cannot say whether or not this school has a history of discrimination, so I will not enter that argument. But you need to understand a weighted GPA system to understand that the highest GPA does not necessarily mean the highest accomplishment.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:14 am | Report abuse |
    • David

      None of that makes any sense for this situation. Even the school officials said that the other person was behind by .05 points.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Michael

      David... it actually fits perfectly. The other student finished with more credits. Please reread my explanation.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:19 am | Report abuse |
    • David

      Covaledictorians, in the past, had the exact GPA down to the decimal place.
      The other student had taken more credits but still finished with a lower GPA.

      Anyway you weigh it, bottom line the other student had a lower GPA. And this is a new precedent, Whats the difference this time around?

      July 27, 2011 at 10:32 am | Report abuse |
    • Meetra

      I don't think CNN reported the situation clear enough as far as the specifics of these student's class load for you to have declared such a specific a judgment, Michael. Your math might be based on some personal experience in the AP system, good for you, that's nice; however, I don't recall the article stating the academic transcripts for both individuals......

      July 27, 2011 at 10:37 am | Report abuse |
    • Michael

      Meetra... You are correct actually. However the point I am trying to drive home is that those who are looking solely at the GPA need to understand that the weighted GPA system is flawed, and need to look at the whole picture rather than just that slice of the picture.

      The article DOES say the other student has a half credit more than the one with the higher GPA. More credits hurt you in a weighted GPA system. So it stands to reason that my explanation needs to be considered before leaping to judgement.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:54 am | Report abuse |
  10. Meetra

    It is hard when AP classes are weighted on a 5.0 scale, a B can be considered as an A compared to a B earned in a standardized class. Were ALL her classes AP? That might make the difference.... Whatever the situation, if they took her moment that she earned away from her because of anything besides her GPA, that is wrong. Valedictorian is a big deal, and if she earned it as a single mom, she has every right to pursue this matter. A court of law will decide if she was wronged, not the grand professors of CNN's comments page.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:15 am | Report abuse |
    • Michael

      Keep in mind that not all subjects have an AP level. There are no AP computer or business classes. There is no AP music, art, or gym.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:22 am | Report abuse |
    • Sonomusic

      They actually do have AP classes in the arts...

      July 27, 2011 at 10:53 am | Report abuse |
  11. Miles

    You do not seem very educated.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:15 am | Report abuse |
  12. Douggie

    The writer of this article (Journalist Ali Elkin ) needs to correct this quote. “That’s what were good at that that’s what we should stick to – that’s the mentality of McGehee.” It appears this valedictorian has a better grasp on the English language than this writer.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:15 am | Report abuse |
  13. stop section8

    She is a product of the system that this country has devolved into. A very unique opportunity has been presented to her and she intends to play the victim all the way to the bank. This country is soft. When a victim is given a stage and a megaphone they become a symbol for the millions of other victims that will identify with her. The country must make the judgement to pay her off thus appeasing all other victims who are watching closely, or risk public unrest that will require even more money for additional police + prison cells. Oh and feel free to replace the word victim with black.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:16 am | Report abuse |
    • htomalley

      No, that's not it at all. Sorry.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:20 am | Report abuse |
    • Nancy in WA

      Oh and feel free to consider yourself kinda racist.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:23 am | Report abuse |
    • Kyle

      No. She rightfully won her right to be recognized as the valedictorian, and the school took that away. It would be a travesty if she left things be and didn't say anything. What she's doing is what America is all about.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:25 am | Report abuse |
    • ice breaker

      The principal should be replaced immediately - what is he trying to teach kids here? Bias, unfairness?

      July 27, 2011 at 10:29 am | Report abuse |
    • Don_J

      stop section8... It must be really nice to lead a privileged life, having everything handed to you, never having anything taken away... even your screen name says allot about you. Have you ever worked hard to overcome adversity to accomplish something... anything, only to have it taken from you and given to someone that you've proven is not as proficient as you... no, no you haven't... I think the most challenging thing you've done all week was match your socks and choose which belt to wear. But you have a great day anyway.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:30 am | Report abuse |
    • Mark

      I'm not sure of the facts here but I'm certain you're a racist. If it turns out that this girl took classes that were easier than someone else, I would think that would be a factor.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:32 am | Report abuse |
    • jersvette

      I know I am stating the obvious but you leave no doubt that you are a full blown racist. The truth is that you are so insecure for whatever reason(s) and this is how you show it. Have a great day!

      July 27, 2011 at 10:36 am | Report abuse |
    • Fairminded

      I love how everyone is so sure about the actual facts and what happened with only getting partial information and one side of the story. As usual, everyone is jumping to conclusions and playing the over-used race card. Do your own research, ask questions, then decide. Never rely on one sorce and make blanket statements that make you look small-minded.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:36 am | Report abuse |
  14. Sottish Liam

    Why do we still treat people like? Kymberley earned the right through hard work to be the valedictorian. The school superintendent should be fired for being a racist

    July 27, 2011 at 10:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Leroy

      You're joking right? The Superintendent is black in case you didn't know! It's not always about race. Co-valedictorian is just as impressive as valedictorian on a resume, and it had no impact on her college prospects/scholarships, so why make such a big deal about it? The only thing she can hope to accomplish is to screw over the other co-valedictorian by getting him/her demoted, and maybe seek a cash payment.
      The only "evidence" that points to racism in this case is all hear-say

      July 27, 2011 at 10:45 am | Report abuse |
  15. Jake

    I'm astonished something like this still happens in America. I live in South Africa (only 17 years of non-racial democracy after apartheid) and you don't hear such stories.

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