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. shaka khan

    where is this school, i shall go forth and take care of this issue myself! kinta, hand me my spear!

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

    Does your mommy know you are using her computer?

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

    I truly applaud this young black girl for having the courage to come out and say something. I attended school in Mississippi and they were known for giving the black students lower grades when compared to the whites. When I left for college alot of the "white" students who made the honor roll in high school failed miserably in University. This lady totally has a point and it was right for her to take legal action. Valedictorian is all about the "HIGHEST Grade point average" ALWAYS HAS....ALWAYS WILL BE.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:18 am | Report abuse |
  4. David Duke

    This just in, 75k will allow one to purchase 40 acres and a mule. I'm going to attend the trial as Al Jolson.

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

    What's all the hula-baloo about? she still got valedictorian right? she is suing cause she had to share? I get it but i wouldn't make a fuss about it. I wouldn't care if i had to share a promotion with someone as long as i get my pay raise.

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

      Well, for one thing it's illegal discrimination so they should be sued. Or at least told to correct. Two, I'm not saying she did, but she could have lost scholarship money or something. It doesn't look as good to be co-valedictorian as it does if you're the only one.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:32 am | Report abuse |
    • qnswmn

      That's you!

      July 27, 2011 at 11:52 am | Report abuse |
  6. shaka khan

    oh my people need me! I'M COMING GIRLIE!

    July 27, 2011 at 11:20 am | Report abuse |
  7. yo yo

    Matt Hill, you and a few others need to shut your racist pie holes. You are living back in the day. COme join us in the future.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:20 am | Report abuse |
  8. Ross

    Are we ignoring that this girl's name is "Kymberly Wimberly"?

    July 27, 2011 at 11:20 am | Report abuse |
  9. hippypoet

    lets all move on, truly showing race doesn't matter! unless your black, playing hide and seek and its at night! then it matters!

    July 27, 2011 at 11:22 am | Report abuse |
  10. Brian

    Something like this happened at my high school. The two darlings of the administration were beaten out for the top spot by a hippie girl. The principal decided they'd all be valedictorian, even though they all had different GPAs. If administration doesn't like someone, you can bet they won't be the sole winner.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:22 am | Report abuse |
  11. ELH

    "...This is strictly an academic issue and a policy issue, not a racial issue."

    If Ms. Wimberly's valedictorian status was changed to a co-valedictorian to be shared with a white student who posted lower grades, absent any formal handbook rule violation, than the decision was most certainly racist. Shame upon the school authorities who made the decision.

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

      But it was clearly school policy to take courseload and course difficulty into account. This is not unique. It's standard at most high schools. Either the weighted average is used for ranking (in which case, Kimberly would not have even SHARED the honor), or there are 2 rankings and the honor is shared. Nothing unusual here.

      If the school was steering minorities from taking harder classes, that IS a problem and an issue worth fighting for. SHARING an honor over .02 GPA difference where the stated policy is to take into account courseload is not.

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

      You obviously did not read the end of the article where it talks about how that rule is always true if a student with a lower GPA took harder classes.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:36 am | Report abuse |
    • Mike in NYC

      I would agree if there were no other factors, however, the article does state that even HER complaint acknowledges that, while the white student's GPA was .03 – .05 lower than her's – the white student's grades were weighted higher because of harder classes. Her argument against that is that the school has a pattern of behavior of discouraging black students from taking harder classes, thereby, almost guaranteeing that a white student will always rank higher. Interestingly though, there is no mention that SHE was actually discouraged from taking harder classes .... only "black stugents generally."

      July 27, 2011 at 11:38 am | Report abuse |
  12. Juliet

    I am African...never been to the USA...I used to crave the chance to even peep at the dream...but I have since realised that there is a quiet apartheid going on in that country....why Americans go ooh aahh over Mandela...I will never understand. Sort yourselves out!!!!

    July 27, 2011 at 11:23 am | Report abuse |
    • Erin

      Best not to generalize. Some Americans, in some parts of the country. Just as it is everywhere around the world – segments of populations are biased towards others based on race, creed, color, gender or religion. Not all, some.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:32 am | Report abuse |
    • Jason

      Oh they like Africans over here because it allows them to feel like they save you from the bad guys. Its Black Americans they have a problem with because they realize they are the bad guys.

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

      You stay over there, you are not welcome here. Oh and by the way it is not quiet anymore there are more and more people letting their voices be heard and no longer putting up with your kind's monkeyshines

      July 27, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Stu

    If she had the highest grade point average she deserves to be the sole valedictorian regardless of her race!! Excellent work Kymberly!! Not only did she get the highest GPA but did it as a single mother. Wow!! The school board should do what is right...send out a message saying that they erred in the awarding of two valedictorians and make Kymberly the sole valedictorian. She earned it!!!

    July 27, 2011 at 11:24 am | Report abuse |
  14. Blackpanthers2020

    What a lot of you fail to realize that SOME whits will go to great lengths to disinfranchise others from another race . Then when that travesty is pointed out , some will say you are playing the race card . Well we wouldn't have to bring race into this but SOME whites will do anything to keep another race from getting the same opurtunities as everyone else and that's the reality of that whether you like it or not . The crazy part about it is when you let them know that your on to what they are doing they ( SOME WHITES ) in turn will say we are playing the race card . But they have no problem trying to make a fool out of someone .

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

      I agree 100%. This isn't about race from Kymberly's perspective but getting what she obviously worked her butt off for. She deserves the recognition as she did earn the highest GPA. I hope the school board does the right thing. She earned it and it doesn't matter what race she is, or whether she is a single mother, or anything else for that matter. She's obviously a remarkable student and deserves the highest accolade!!

      July 27, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Bradley

    The $75,000 is not necessarily arbitrary or greedy, it could be a legal tactic. If she's moved out of state for whatever reason, she needs the dollar amount to meet the dollar requirement for the case to be brought to federal court under diversity of citizenship. Her lawyer is laying whatever groundwork he can to keep this out of the local/state courts for obvious reasons. The standard for racial discrimination is often hard to get and this is another factor to insure its in federal court.

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

      The story said it was punitive damages. That will go mostly to legal fees.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:34 am | Report abuse |
    • Jason

      you get a standing ovation from me.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:34 am | Report abuse |
    • Mike in NYC

      Of course it is a legal tactic. EVERYTHING in a complaint is a legal tactic. As an attorney I can assure you that every fact in a complaint is put there for a reason – and that reason is to put the complaint in the best light for your client. Every issue in the complaint is 'shaded' (or exaggerated) to make your client look good and to make your opponent look evil. THAT is the entire purpose of the complaint. Any first year law student knows that there are 3 sides to every civil lawsuit – there's the plaintiff's side, the defendant's side, and then what ACTUALLY happened.

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