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. Sam Walton's Ghost Woooooo..

    Half the school is black with many black teachers and administrators... Are they racist against their own people?.. Woooo... *Rattles chains*.. Woo.... Shop at Walmart or Sam's Clubs please... Woooo....

    July 26, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • BBoy

      If almost half the school is Black, and there are Black teachers, but the majority of AP class are all or mostly White, that is telling that there may be some sort of racially motivated issue going on. Plus, it doesn't sound like the AP teachers are Black, which might have made a difference in the encouragement of Black students to take AP classes.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:33 am | Report abuse |
  2. Romany

    Hmmmm....would this young lady still be suing if she was the sole valedictorian?
    After all, the racial make-up of the AP classes were still the same...

    July 26, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Chuck

    Who the hell at CNN allowed that to even be posted? Someone needs to lose their job for allowing such a racist, Ill-informed, and stupid comment showing up.

    July 26, 2011 at 7:08 pm | Report abuse |
  4. blair

    Yeah Claire, what is this world coming to when ppl can't comprehend correctly. 75,000 is diff from 750,000.

    July 26, 2011 at 7:09 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Sam Walton's Ghost Woooooo..

    Ooohhhh Oooooooo.... Maybe they should have two or three different categories for those in regular classes and those in AP classes.. Woooo... Nice and fair woooo....

    July 26, 2011 at 7:09 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Romany

    @ roderick ronald roberts:
    Didn't take advantage of that free education, did you?

    July 26, 2011 at 7:09 pm | Report abuse |
  7. john 1121

    Cesar The Chorizo Champ Of Chihuahua – And how would that be alright??? That would still be discrimination, you smart feller you... My word, your ignorance is painful to witness.

    July 26, 2011 at 7:09 pm | Report abuse |
  8. dddddd

    This going to be funny I just checked your family tree you have African American in your family tree. Take a look .It must be nice to put down your own race.

    July 26, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • jem morgue

      There's a joke there, and I'm not even going to touch it. Because then you'll know I'm from texas.

      July 26, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • jem morgue

      was a reply to ddddd's family tree adage, by the way

      July 26, 2011 at 8:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Miz

      Hahaha! I just got it! That's terrible.

      July 26, 2011 at 9:07 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Romany

    Old Time:
    What is two people have the same GPA and took the same classes?
    What would you do? Flip a coin?
    THAT'S why there are co-valedictorians.
    Need to brush up, old timer.

    July 26, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
  10. justsaying

    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. – Maybe the other girl took harder classes. I'm all for standing up for yourself. At the same time there is a lot missing here and people need to wait before jumping to conclusions.

    July 26, 2011 at 7:12 pm | Report abuse |
  11. CJinCA

    Did the school award higher grade points for advanced placement courses. That could solve this issue. My high school awarded more points for advanced or what we called 'honors' classes, so an A in regular math would result in a grade point of 3, A in advanced placement math awarded 4 grade points. We did end up with a valedictorian controversy when 1 girl took regular math before honors math was offered, and the other one waited a year and took the honors math and got the extra point. It was that one point that made the difference. 2nd place girls parents complained that she hadn't had the opportunity to take the honors math, but in the end, she was salutditorian. The school decided that the first girl did the extra work, so deserved the extra point. In this case, both girls were same race (white).

    July 26, 2011 at 7:18 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Romany

    THAT'S what I'm talking about, just saying...

    I thinks the person who took 4 years of AP classes and has a 3.95 GPA trumps the 4.0 GPA who took glasses like jewelry making, pottery, and whatever, in addition to the absolute minimum needed to graduate.
    It seems to me that a kid who gets an A- in trig has just a bit of an edge intellectually than the kid who gets an A+ in general math.
    Sorry, but numbers DO lie, if one doesn't look at the content of the courses the child is taking.

    July 26, 2011 at 7:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Reading Comprehension 101

      Did you read the article? It clearly states she took AP literature, biology, and calculus.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:58 pm | Report abuse |
  13. jb

    Who is the co-valedictorian...related to?

    July 26, 2011 at 7:19 pm | Report abuse |
  14. esther clark

    Sad, all the racist comments condemning her for thinking that the school officials might be racists. Some people need to look in the mirror. If they can be that racist why would they think the school officials aren't as bad.

    CNN, leave the nasty comments up. It really helps clarify the problem. Racism is alive and well in the USA.

    July 26, 2011 at 7:21 pm | Report abuse |
  15. pjay

    No mention of her daddy - just a mom (who has a different last name). Oh, and the kid is a single teen mother. Nice.
    But the real important issue is ... "Kymberly Wimberly." Really? You're *&@ing serious? Her parent(s) need to be beaten with a nail-y 2×4 for that one. Seriously.

    July 26, 2011 at 7:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dubs

      Hahaha...i was thinking the same thing!

      July 26, 2011 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Vi

      pjay...you are a idiot my friend. What does having a father around have to do with having the higheest GPA? That was a dumb comment.

      July 27, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Report abuse |
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