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. kienne

    GIVE HER THE RESPECT AND RECOGNITION SHE DESERVES!!!!!

    July 27, 2011 at 10:43 am | Report abuse |
  2. Mel

    "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 think many of you skipped over this paragraph. This wasn't about race. This was fair. The other student had MORE credits with practically the same GPA. Furthermore, it IS a policy in the student handbook. This suit is done before it got started.

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

      It's kind of fishy though that the other student only took a 1/2 credit more, and their GPA was .05 points lower....I don't feel like the math on that makes perfect sense. I suppose we'd have to find out how many credit they'd both taken all together and do the math.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:59 am | Report abuse |
  3. McBears

    shes in the school already, has top grades, has a black president, stop complaining, drop the lawsuit, avoid welfare and use your skills to work like the rest of us

    July 27, 2011 at 10:45 am | Report abuse |
  4. Rodd

    SMH...........Hard to believe stuff still happens like this in the quote on quote "Greatest Country in the World".........hmmmmmmm, no its's not.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:46 am | Report abuse |
  5. Terrence

    The issue with this and what I see in working with EEO at my job is this: the reasoning for putting in the co-valedictorian could very well NOT have been based on Kimberly being black. But because there is no precedent/logical explanation for adding a valedictorian with a lower GPA (no matter how much smaller) coupled with her being black, it gives the notion that it was racially motivated. They would have to look at past times when co-valedictorians were announced to see if any of those instances had two students with different GPAs. If not, the school/district is screwed.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Mel

      "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."

      From this very article.

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

    My stepdaughter, who is white, attended a predominantly black inner city school that was actively seeking white students. The ratio was probably 95 – 5. At her graduation ceremony I learned one of the white students had the highest GPA and also that the school had decided to name no one as valedictorian. I found that odd.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:48 am | Report abuse |
    • hippypoet

      trying to appear as fair, but its really just reverse racism! they won't make the white kid valedvic because it is an almost enitre black school.... racism is everywhere, normally in the public eye its more familiar as reverse racism... the clear atemp at being fair from a stance of race, retarded!

      July 27, 2011 at 11:27 am | Report abuse |
  7. Kent Bowen

    I grew up in Arkansas. Stuff like this makes me embarrassed to admit it. It's just amazing that this stuff is still going on...

    July 27, 2011 at 10:50 am | Report abuse |
  8. Connor

    I am a white guy and my school in Louisiana promoted a black guy to Co-Valdictorian with me. Could I get $75,000 or is that only if I'm black. It wasn't racist then and it isn't racist now. If she gets that money then I better get some too. Works both ways people.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:51 am | Report abuse |
    • Anthony

      I agree! You should get the same amount and I am black!

      July 27, 2011 at 10:59 am | Report abuse |
    • MSB

      Hey smart guy, did you actually read and comprehend the article? The problem was not that a "white" co-valedictorian, the problem is that the co-valedictorian was not appointed until after it was discovered that the valedictorian was an African-American!

      July 27, 2011 at 11:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Jeff

      Agreed! Affirmative Action is a one-way bullsh-t street. Period. As a white man, I have been "snubbed" from jobs and deemed "under-qualified" while I watch the Pakistani woman, African-American man, or Asian woman land the SAME job I applied to. It wasn't that their work was any better than anyone else, but they filled the "quota". Do you think a white man can sue for "punitive damages"? Not a chance...........

      July 27, 2011 at 11:04 am | Report abuse |
    • Yo

      shuddup

      July 27, 2011 at 11:06 am | Report abuse |
    • Connor

      Okay first off I'm pretty sure that Kimberly Wimberly isn't african American she is black. If being called black is offensive then I am going to start getting offended over being called white. From now on I am an English American. That is the new politically correct term for me. Yes I did comprehend the article anytime something doesn't go your way its racist. There were tons of scholarships I couldn't get because I wasn't black. If you want to fix the racist problem stop bringing it up.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:09 am | Report abuse |
  9. Meliisa

    I am so tired of people, white, black, or hispanic of playing the race card. I bet if she had been the one with .03 or .05 below the other and was told she would not be co-valedictorian she would be suing. Rather than wasting the court's time and the taxpayer's moeny, get a job, better yourself and take care of your child. That is how you make a difference in this world.

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

    Race has nothing to do with these types of things any longer....in case anyone hasnt noticed, our president is African-American.....I didnt see the white man holding him down. work hard and you shall be rewarded. Simple as that.....Congrats to Kymberly for achieving that status, its a phenomenal achievement for anyone regardless of race or background. Life is and has always been a struggle for anyone of any religious, racial, or background otherwise. When is the world going to wake up and realize that it doesnt care if you are white, black, muslim, christian....if you work hard and stand up for what you believe, anyone can accomplish anything.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Sigh...

      She worked hard, and now she's standing up for what she believes is right.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:03 am | Report abuse |
    • Cait

      Wait, you really think that race doesn't matter anymore? Just read the comments on any article about race here and it's glaringly obvious that race matters a whole lot in this country.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:04 am | Report abuse |
  11. Kelly

    The other person had a half credit more – I don't see what their argument is. Fair is fair, and this other person obviously beat her by a smidge. To sue is ridiculous. I'm sick of the race card altogether. Notice how, not only is she accusing them of taking away her valedictorian status because of her race, but not the whole entire SCHOOL is basically racist and helps white people more. Come on.... Stop pouting and playing the victim. You obviously got a great education if you have such a good GPA. If your teachers truly failed you, you wouldn't be graduating period. It's a bummer for her, but nothing more than that.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:53 am | Report abuse |
  12. Natfka

    Wow, talking about making everything about race. This is about two kids who achieved excellence.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:53 am | Report abuse |
    • WaitWhat?

      uh not really. Did you read the article?

      July 27, 2011 at 11:03 am | Report abuse |
  13. ResidentofMS

    When I read this article, I knew that the young lady in it was stating the truth. I live in MS and she is correct when she states that black students are not encouraged to take the harder courses. The teachers (specifically white) in the middle schools start encouraging the black students and their parents that Itheir child should be in less-challenging classes of Math, Science & English. I have to really stay on top of my son's teachers and make him aware of what they are doing to him. I don't think that the US Dept of Education pays close attention at how the school districts in MS are operating. It is an extremely sad situation.

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

    Why is it every time someone of any race but white doesn't get what they want they have to pull the race card and cry "discrimination!" PULLEEZE! They get preferential treatment! I lost my scholarship to a hispanic because "he needed a chance." Well, he is the town drunk now and I am the one with a degree.

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

    BOOHOOO I LOST , but wait I can play the RACE CARD and CNN will listen to me YEAHHHHHH
    I might even get go away money... EVERYONE SHOULD PLAY THE RACE CARD POWER TO THE PEOPLE

    July 27, 2011 at 10:55 am | Report abuse |
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