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. Jarod

    Kim, as I read your post, it becomes painfully obvious that deductive reasoning is NOT a trait you posses. Let me help you, it is apparent that she opened both but this issue is about whats right vs wrong; not about her child. Get help.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:19 am | Report abuse |
  2. george in texas

    the penalty should be removal of the principal. money rewards won't cure racism,

    July 27, 2011 at 10:19 am | Report abuse |
  3. Fred G.

    you're a closed minded idiot and that was a racial statement.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:19 am | Report abuse |
  4. Grey Stone

    Someone less qualified was given something they didn't actually earn? Isn't that called affirmative action? How you like it now?

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

      Well said.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:28 am | Report abuse |
    • David

      Such ignorance. Just because you have a couple of stories you share with your friends about one black guy getting one up over you, doesn't mean this is norm. White Women are the main beneficiaries of Affirmative Action. Look it up.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:06 am | Report abuse |
  5. Erin

    Wow, so because she made a mistake she should never be allowed to excel or get recognition? Seems like she worked hard and did have the brains, so the fact she had a child should not penalize her since it has nothing to do with becoming valedictorian.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:20 am | Report abuse |
  6. Name*michael turner

    Racism is alive well in America. Take a look at how the republicans treats the president. Some whites have a problem with intellengent black.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:22 am | Report abuse |
    • Nancy in WA


      July 27, 2011 at 10:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      Michael that should be all white not some white

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

      I have a problem with blacks CONSTANTLY pulling the race card at everything that doesn't advance their own individual greed.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:31 am | Report abuse |
    • Kyle

      I have a problem with white people CONSTANTLY pulling the race-card card everytime a black person stands up for their rights.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:34 am | Report abuse |
  7. Hmmm....just thinking

    Hope everything works out for the best! And I applaud Kymberly for raising a child, and still excelling in school!!

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

      She should stand proud for her efforts and results, not whining about being allegedly mistreated.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:33 am | Report abuse |
  8. For Parity

    The story reveals that the co-valedictorian had a half point HIGHER than Wimberly. *Higher* is the key, however, not enough to really change things too much. Therefore, we can surely see how the other student having a half point higher should have also been included without incident in the interest of Fairness. So, this should not turn into a ra-cial divide but rather what is truly *fair* if the girl believes in being fair to others as well.

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

      You didn't understand what you read. The other person's GPA was LOWER (go re-read the article), but they had taken 1/2 credit more than Wimberly.

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

      The fact remains that the co-valedictorian had a half point HIGHER that was awarded to them. That does make a difference since it was obviously found to be the correct thing to do to award them that half point. If it had not been awarded then there wouldn't be an issue here but given that it was, they deserve the same recognition for parity.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:47 am | Report abuse |
  9. Reformer7

    I am an American citizen born in Africa. I have lived in the United States for 24 years, and did all my college schooling here [I have a BA from UT Austin, and an MS from Carnegie Mellon University]. I consider myself a neutral observer and logical commentator in all US affairs [both domestic and international]. As a neutral observer, and based on my first-hand experiences in this country, I sadly state that "America is still a very racist country", and will continue to be. All the talk of equity, simply translates to "Equity between White Men and White Women". The rest of the country must do with scraps from the economy. This is because there are many devils in this country who still believe that "if it isn't white, it isn't right". Don't get me wrong: I am not defending the laziness, violence, babies out of wedlock, and callousness in many black families in America, and I refuse to use "My fore fathers were enslaved" as an excuse for the decadence in many black neighborhoods today. This young woman may or may not have a case. I hope the Courts will look deeply into her claims and dish out the maximum punishment allowed by law to all the guilty parties.

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

      Reformer 7, congrats on your achievements and well said. My friend told me once after the Death of his Mom her white Employers were very nice to them. I told him this will be only for a matter of time and I have never seen or met a nice white person. They are all DEVILS.

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

      As an outsider, you should refrain from judgmental statemants. HOW DARE YOU lump everyone that lives here as a racist. Treat people as individuals, The Lord certainly will when our time is up. Treat people with respect, and you get respect in return. I wonder, though, if her mother was the one that put her up to this complaint, or perhaps she did this to advance her single-mother life monetarily. BTW, this type of publicized complaining won't help her chances of getting a decent job when she finishes college.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:40 am | Report abuse |
  10. bigdad1154

    chungy, if you could read, it stated that it was the mother whom they claimed had problems with the paper work, not her daughter. which is probably another lie. and second,, yes she has a child, and should be praised for doing such excellent school work under such adverse conditions. yes, she made a mistake by having a child while still in school, but it happens. the school superintendent is wrong on this, the school is wrong on this, and you are wrong on this. it happens in everyday life. oops!!! sorry, after reviewing your paper work, "we" found some mistakes please go to the end of the line and try again !! snicker, snicker!!! stand up for whats right, and get rid of your bigoted outlook on blacks. it gets old, real fast!!!

    July 27, 2011 at 10:23 am | Report abuse |
  11. Bobby G.

    Simple-minded position there....

    July 27, 2011 at 10:23 am | Report abuse |
  12. LordofBobz

    always so ready to cry about it being cause you're black.

    It had nothing to do with race. but people just have to blame something.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:23 am | Report abuse |
  13. george in texas

    her hair tells me she is probably half white. it may not be a discrimination thing.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:23 am | Report abuse |
  14. elnewf

    Unbeleivable. Read all the details. At every turn, people behaved in a disingenuous manner. Please, you can't speak until after the ceremony because you filled out the form incorrectly. Shame on these people. In this day and age it is simply wrong to judge a situation like this based on race or whether or not you have a child. Intelligence and life choices never go together – look at your politicians, celebrities and Wall Street. She achieved her status through hard work. 75K is peanuts compared to what she can put back into the community with a solid education and a good job.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:24 am | Report abuse |
  15. Steel

    "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" they never mentioned what the other girls course load was. In fact I'm betting that she took more AP classes then miss race card did and should sue for having to share the valedictorian spot with some one who doesn't deserve it. Funny how it's all fine and dandy when it's a White person being discriminated against but when it's a Sistah they better have the check book out.

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