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. weed

    why do people need this recognition any way? they are not confident within there self ? hmm

    July 27, 2011 at 11:07 am | Report abuse |
  2. opinion

    Give us a break already! I am a black woman and I can honsetly say black people continously play the 'race card' any chance they get in order not to have to take responsibilty for their own actions/deeds. It's always someone elses fault. Let's get over the race issue already.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:09 am | Report abuse |
    • Lyfizalesson

      Preach opinion

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

      RACE CARD? What is that? So African Americans and others don't know when we are discriminated against? Give me a break some of "you people" are so sick and twisted as always.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:17 am | Report abuse |
    • qnswmn

      @ I am a black woman and I can honsetly say black people continously play the 'race card' any chance they get in order not to have to take responsibilty for their own actions/deeds. It's always someone elses fault. Let's get over the race issue already".
      You claim to be a black woman and you use the YT made up term “RACE CARD”, who taught you that? There is no such thing as a RACE CARD. Either you are discriminated against or you are not. If you are discriminated against and say so is that is using a "RACE CARD"?. What does this young woman need to take responsibility for? Was it her fault that she was CHEATED out of an honor that should have been solely hers just because she is an AFRICAN American? You are such a big FAKE, get a life fool and please take the responsibility to learn how to SPELL dummy!

      July 27, 2011 at 11:33 am | Report abuse |
    • Charms

      Opinion, try selling your story to someone dumb.
      what a joker!

      July 27, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Charms

    "Race Card" are terms used to discourage victims of true racial discrimination. As soon as it's mentioned, the victim feels cornered and afraid to raise issues where racial bias was the tool of use. However, if Blacks think racism is strong in US, try UK and Europe lol.
    Racism sucks in either first stances or reversals.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:09 am | Report abuse |
  4. Lyfizalesson

    hey...i know this is off topic...but why do we pay for education...why isnt it free...period....i clearly get more answers from google...and back to the point...racism is still there...has been, will be...it sucks but its true...just like stereotypes...but real talk everybody is black...life started in africa...end of story...but at the end of the day...we all have one thing in common...we are human...think about it...none of us can change the way we were born...its crazy how u can be hated on even as a baby....

    July 27, 2011 at 11:09 am | Report abuse |
    • sbp

      Why do we pay for education? Because Teachers, principals, and school janitors don't work for free. Do you?

      July 27, 2011 at 11:14 am | Report abuse |
  5. caw

    I would need to know the exact course load of each. If the other one had 3 more AP courses than this person, then it's justified. I can definitely see it might be race, but can't draw a definitely conclusion until I see a lot more information.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:11 am | Report abuse |
  6. Nonimus

    How exactly does Co-valedictorian status diminish her Valedictorian status?
    What harm was done to her that is "actionable"?

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

      I'd love to see you become a winner at anything and have someone eles who really didn't win become a co-winner with you. I bet you will get the point then. SMH!

      July 27, 2011 at 11:45 am | Report abuse |
    • Josoc

      Good point. Inspite all the bravado she thinks she's displaying, all she's showing is a very huge sense of insecurity.

      July 27, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Report abuse |
  7. george in texas

    jesus had no black disciples. did he discriminate?

    July 27, 2011 at 11:12 am | Report abuse |
    • Suff

      Jesus wasn't white hillbilly.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:18 am | Report abuse |
    • ryan

      hmmm well i would have to say if her classes were easier she shouldnt be held to the same standard as AP students.... you can have a 4.0 at a community college but its still not as good as a 3.5 at a good state school....... from: someone who hires college students on a daily basis.....

      July 27, 2011 at 11:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Kylar

      He also had no white disciples. Most of his disciples were of middle eastern proto-semetic extraction.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:20 am | Report abuse |
    • Think

      No white ones either.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:22 am | Report abuse |
    • Gritty

      REALLY! How many black Jewish people do you think lived in that area at the time.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:29 am | Report abuse |
    • qnswmn

      Your ignorance is really really showing!

      July 27, 2011 at 11:46 am | Report abuse |
    • Time to tell the truth

      Jesus wasn't white...no matter how hard you try to make him look like that!!! He was from Africa!! GET IT STRAIGHT GEORGE!!

      July 27, 2011 at 11:57 am | Report abuse |
  8. Homer

    Being a victim only gets you being a victim.....More "poor me" BS by another African...my gosh grow up and quit playing the race card!!!

    July 27, 2011 at 11:13 am | Report abuse |
    • Gaby A.

      Homer, you're a fool.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:27 am | Report abuse |
    • Jimi G.

      As a former student of the Arkansas public school system, I believe that her position and argument has a lot of merit. Many African American students have been, and continue to be conditioned (explicitly and implicitly) to set low expectations for themselves and are not encouraged to strive for academic excellence. It becomes a self-perpetuating prophecy and many teachers and administrators also "buy-in" to it and begin believing that black students are simply inferior academically. In making this point, let me also emphasize that I had a lot of great teachers of various races that encouraged and supported me. The net of it is this – Americans of ALL races need to come together as one with an objective of making this country the best in can be!!! We need to stop letting the media, politicians, and ultra rich distract and divide us or in 2050 our biggest problem won't be the "racial composition" of this nation (as some would have us believe) but the "class composition". In other words, we'll be a nation of 3 to 5% upper class with the other 95% to 97% at the working class to lower middle class level. Oh, and by the way, we'll probably be a protectorate of China, India, Brazil, or Russia by then. Think about it.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:45 am | Report abuse |
    • mike guy

      she is American Homer. Not African. Idiot

      July 27, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
  9. T. Johnson

    Like most white employees of southern school districts, it is considered unconsciable that a black, single parent is smarter than a white student. How dare she keep her grades up and have a higher gpa than a white student. Why, that goes against everything southern whites have been raised to believe about blacks. So yes, it is a problem for SOME whites to accept.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:13 am | Report abuse |
    • BortTheMort

      They did state it was a policy issue. Do you think someone with a kid is material for valedictorian? It's more than grades- it's everything involved. Sounds like a great role model to me and my kids...A kid before they graduate high school is the only way to get recognized anymore. All they do is whine...waaa waaa waaa....life is not fair. I'm a victim.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:29 am | Report abuse |
    • Black Femail

      You grow up. You are a typical racist

      July 27, 2011 at 11:31 am | Report abuse |
  10. methodrone2011

    Last name Wimberly. Why did they name her Kymberly? Is her brother's name Jymberly?

    July 27, 2011 at 11:14 am | Report abuse |
    • Liz


      July 27, 2011 at 11:16 am | Report abuse |
    • susan

      Your intelligence overwhelms me.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:36 am | Report abuse |
  11. Kyle

    What the hell does that have to do with anything? Please explain how her having a child justifies the school taking something away from her. Please draw us that map, Magellan.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:14 am | Report abuse |
  12. ramicio

    Valedictorians should also show a moral example, not just get good grades. Who cares if you do some work and do good at it if the example you set is that it's OK to have a child as a teen outside of marriage? You also need to be a brown-nosing jerk to get to the point of "earning" something like this, and do all kinds of stupid extra-curricular activities. All of this garbage and college are just for status, not actually making a person smarter.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:15 am | Report abuse |
    • Earthling

      Youre a d-bag. I hope you get run over by a truck.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Zebula

      While I think teen pregnancy is an unfortunate problem in this country, I disagree with you. This young lady could have gone on welfare and submitted to any number of stereotypical behaviours. Instead, she excelled in school, despite obvious discrimination in the form of low expectations. She should not only be valedictorian, she should be proud to be a role model for others to succeed despite adversity.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:25 am | Report abuse |
    • J

      Well, that's an intelligent assessment. All those extracurricular activities expand your character, your social skills, and myriad other things. And college? Is to further your education so that you can get a decent job and to teach you not to make inane comments like yours.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:26 am | Report abuse |
    • The Dude

      This is High school. Not the presidency or running for pope.

      Its all about race. It is always about race in America because Slavery was a crime left unpunished.

      Until there is justice this will always be a problem. With the Native population, the White mans genocide will keep them for ever paying for that one.

      Good thing us Whites will be extinct in under 200 years. The world will be a better place. I say this as a White man in Kansas

      July 27, 2011 at 11:30 am | Report abuse |
    • qnswmn

      @"Valedictorians should also show a moral example, not just get good grades"

      Oh please say whom her school?

      July 27, 2011 at 11:50 am | Report abuse |
  13. The Dude

    The idiot racist south. Why do people elect to stay living near ignorant White Trash?

    I say this as a White Man.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:16 am | Report abuse |
  14. NoJack

    If this girl was white most people will rally around her but she's Black so they automatically HATE her and her family. so sad.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:17 am | Report abuse |
  15. GetReal

    Is it because she's black, or because she's a single mother, or both? I think she sets a good example for single mothers who think they don't have time to get a degree. This is 1950's Jim Crow all over again. Rosa Parks would heartily disapprove.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:18 am | Report abuse |
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