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. Liz

    Umm she IS the smartest girl in her class, her GPA showed it. Common sense and book smarts are too totally different things. I've known very smart people who have made some really dumb decisions. Like posting ignorant comments for all to see...

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

    I TAUGHT at an intercity school in Los Angeles. I am a white, middle-aged woman who gerw up in an all-white county.. TRUST ME – the black kids get a second rate education. The whites went into the IB programs and got special awards over equally as qualified black kids. I had a highschool student who missed school 20 days. No body inquired why. Finally his "mother" called in to see if he had shown up in classes. She didn't notie he was missing for 20 days (Granted Casey Anthony holds the record on this one) . THe shool told her to check with the police. They took her down to the morgue where his body had been for 20 days. But since "he was only a black kid" and even though he was wearing our high school gym shorts,no one could bother pickuing up the phone and calling the school and asking if we had a missing dead kid. There's a new "culture" out there passing themselves off as "Christians" . THese folks are so bigotted and hateful that the word "Christian" is now equated " ignroant white supremicists". Kymberly, stand up for what is right and best of luck!!

    July 27, 2011 at 10:26 am | Report abuse |
  3. Patrick

    Job seems like you have a lot of growing up to do yourself. I think you need to say " now we have to bow to them when they graduate and not graduation"

    July 27, 2011 at 10:26 am | Report abuse |
  4. sircharles19

    Often those with criminal records are single out because they are not trusted. What has having a baby has anything to do with a lady studying and passing all of the requirements to become the school's valedictorian. Come on everybody, that is why God is making things happen to our world; we got to get away from inhuman things. We got to learn how be equal and live right among one and the other. After all, what does it prove to treat people less than human beings, and this whole thing could be avoided if we just think before we act. If this younglady deserve and earn Valedictorian status; give it to her! Making sense is easy, doing what is right...its hard isn't it. Media can either make or brake stories when they don't even have the full story. I think this school needs to give the full story if they are trying to keep black's back or make things unequal for them. Bottom Line!

    July 27, 2011 at 10:26 am | Report abuse |
    • deb

      If this young lady had a baby and was still able to make the grades she did, she amazing and should get the recognition she earned! We should all be so dedicated!

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

    If she got the best grades, then there's no reason for her to be downgraded from valedictorian, unless the school has a long-standing tradition of naming two people each year. (in which case they should still change this if it impedes college prospects). When there's no logical reason for an action a school takes, then I can't blame anyone for playing the "race" card, or woman card, single mother card, or whatever else they do, since the school itself are the ones presenting such a big question mark in motive.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:26 am | Report abuse |
    • Michael

      Consider this simplified situation:

      AP classes get 5 points for each A, regular classes get 4 points for each A. Not all subjects have AP classes, so a 5.0 GPA is impossible.

      Student #1: 4 AP classes with 4 A's. 2 regular classes with 2 A's. GPA = 4.67
      Student #2: 4 AP classes with 4 A's. 3 regular classes with 3 A's. GPA = 4.57

      Student #2 accomplished more than Student #1. However student #1 has the higher GPA. Who deserves to be valedictorian?

      July 27, 2011 at 10:35 am | Report abuse |
    • Jerome

      I think what you are getting at is Quality Point Average. Most schools take into account the QPA over the GPA when determining valedictorian status. It is certainly possible that she didn't take enough higher QP classes(advance placement) to be the sole valedictorian.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:43 am | Report abuse |
  6. Joseph

    How hard did she fight to get into the advanced placement courses? Did she file a lawsuit over that as well?

    July 27, 2011 at 10:26 am | Report abuse |
    • Draeggo

      She shouldn't have to. Your statement has no bearing on the facts and I very seriously doubt that you would follow your own advice where it you... oh wait... after reading your statement again... you probably would.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:34 am | Report abuse |
    • Jerome

      You do mean "were it you," I'm sure.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:45 am | Report abuse |
    • Patricia Travis

      ??????what does that have to do wit anything??????

      July 27, 2011 at 10:56 am | Report abuse |
  7. Logical

    Did you miss the part about how she had the highest GPA in her graduating class? With honors and AP classes? And a child?

    Since when does having a child impact your ability to perform in class? She had a baby and still out-performed every other student in her class. I'd say there were plenty open books in that equation.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:26 am | Report abuse |
  8. Anonymous

    This is a very ignorant comment. The young woman featured in this story is clearly intelligent enough to have earned the highest gpa in her class, regardless of what she was doing in her extracurricular activities.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:27 am | Report abuse |
  9. cedar hill

    I think she should sue. Blacks are tired of being screwed in this way. If it were the other way around, they would have never made the Kimberley a co-valedictorian. Just plain racists people.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:28 am | Report abuse |
  10. MadaLin

    I How did she know that student had lower grades, are thoes things not private?

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

      No it is not private. Not for valedictorian statures. It is announced for both the co-valedictorian and the valedictorian right then and there at graduation. And not for nothing the whole situation had to seem weird to the entire auditorium. How could they publicly announce her grades and then someone that got lower grades and that person made valedictorian,instead of her.? This IS a case of racism and she deserves her rightful dues and recognition!!!!

      July 27, 2011 at 10:43 am | Report abuse |
  11. willie smith

    okay people, i am WHITE, sorry I had to say that, but this would have never happened to me or my sister.

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

      In the South it could happen to you. Our high school policy in MS (she's in AR) required a black and a white co-valedictorian. The black co-valedictorian in my graduating class of 1995 was #8, #'s 1-7 were white....get in line 🙂

      July 27, 2011 at 10:39 am | Report abuse |
  12. whatever

    I couldn't concentrate after reading 'Kimberly Wimberly". But basically this is reverse-reverse racism. This kind of thing happens all the time to white kids; a token inclusion situation. I watched my black classmates, who had lower GPAs and SAT scores than me, be awarded multiple scholarships based on their race. They want to have their cake and eat it too.

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

      You are right. White students constantly are loosing scholarships to less qualified minority students. They will be losing them to illegal aliens next if the libs get their way.

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

      see there we go again typical white remark the blacks get affirmitive action card please. Do you know how many things you and I have gotten on the daily that our race doesant give them on the regular. How bout respect or fair treatment at restaurants, or how bout service or job promotions. You and I both know its true. I am just speaking the truth and I suggest you be honest with yourself

      July 27, 2011 at 10:39 am | Report abuse |
    • bingo

      Yea but does that make it right. Any way that has nothing to do with her being the valedictorian.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:40 am | Report abuse |
    • whatever

      Jack Kenedy – I don't agree with anything you said. Maybe 50 years ago but defintiely not now. And Bing0 – no it doesn't make it right, but I also don't see white kids bringing up lawsuits and getting national press when it happens to them much more frequently.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:45 am | Report abuse |
    • oKAYtHEN

      Whatever, I think you are missing the point of the multiple scholarships that some black students receive. A lot of those scholarships are solely for African American from low incomes. Remember it is only been 40 to 45 years that black were able to attend almost any school they wanted to attend. A lot of those scholarships are from that time and are still running. Also, if you happen to notice the earning difference in this country along the race line then you would see that more than often it’s the black kids that need help paying for college. I am sorry you happen to fall in that small category of whites that need to additional funds to attend college but the number of black kids is far higher.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Jack Kenedy

      you cant deny the truth If you were to higher someone black guy walks in white guy walks in both identical resumes and credentials who ya gona hire I guarantee the white guy because you have more in common its that simple I would probably inadvertantly do the same. not because im some sort of racist, but by human nature we like being around those who are similiar to us in mind as well as in body.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:57 am | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      and that's the law......of the south

      July 27, 2011 at 11:31 am | Report abuse |
  13. Sarah

    I was going to point something out but actually, when I think about it, I completely agree with you. Usually people who are smart don't make dumb decisions without mulling over the consequences of the possible actions they have to choose from. If this girl is as smart as she claims to be, she was fully aware (re: operation prego) of what could happen, but who would choose that outcome, if only to collect child support or receive help from the gov.? If she is really brilliant, she must effin' loveee babies, or maybe she feels she will be able to better relate to her child due to the fact they will be closer in age than most mother/daughter duos. Oh, life.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:30 am | Report abuse |
  14. JanetMermaid

    It is sad that discrimination like this still exists in this country. There is no logical reason for the school to have created co-validictiorians. She was the top of her class and rightly deserved that honor all on her own. Although I despise frivolous lawsuits I believe she has an honest issue here.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:30 am | Report abuse |
  15. Greg

    There seems to be a couple of distinct issues going on here and separating them from each other is important.

    1st issue: the whole co-validictorian thing. If this is what is what she is suing over, she'll lose. Regardless of how you thing it should be determined, the handbook clearly stated that GPA was not the only factor to be considered, and it this case, that policy seems to have been followed. Whether it is consistently followed in another matter entirely, and not part of this issue directly. Schools all over the country have this issue, though, so chances are, race, or even her pregnancy, are not the only issues at play.

    2nd issue: multiple claims of more systemic racism. This could very well be an issue, IF it can be proven. All the article had to say on the matter relied on hearsay and personal opinions, which are not enough to prove their case. There may be evidence to back them up, or it could be personal bias putting their own personal spin on words and actions taken by others that may have been intended to mean something completely different. In particular, the comments overheard by the mother could have been referring to any number of things about this story, not just race.

    In the end, all I can pull from this story is that there is a lot of local politics going on that we don't know everything about. While race certainly could be a factor, there are probably a lot of other factors in play as well, and without knowing the entire story, it's hard to tell how legitimate the claims in the story are.

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