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. btl_driver

    In our "everyone should feel good" world, we should make the entire class valedictorian so no one has any hurt feelings. Get over it, nowhere does it say co-valadictorian except maybe the program for the graduation ceremonies.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:35 am | Report abuse |
  2. MrsHigdon

    Thats wrong for you to say and you know it, you are very ignorant and one sided you dont know this your girls situation. Not once did i read about her opening her legs to get ahead in life. You must have been a teen mom to say that, and must not have graduated with honors, if you even graduated at all. Your selfestem must be so low for you to say such awful things. Why dont you get a job/ or get back to work.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:37 am | Report abuse |
  3. NoRadicalsPlease

    The real world is going to be a harsh one for this young lady.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:38 am | Report abuse |
    • Punkass

      Thats exactly what I was thinking

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

      I agree. The real world is harsh and unfair. Sometimes in college you know a professor is harder on you for personal reasons. Swallow it and move on. If you work hard no matter who you are you will eventually make a success of yourself. I learned in my life to pick my battles and sometimes it isn't worth it.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:53 am | Report abuse |
  4. Kevin

    Congrats on her achievement in the gave of such diversity and congrats on another use for the race card!

    July 27, 2011 at 11:39 am | Report abuse |
  5. Come on

    HA, people are ignorant, We know nothing of this kid. He may have all A's but took one less AP class so his GPA was one lower, he also may be extremely active around the school for clubs, sports, and academic organizations. WAY more goes into these decisions than GPA. Most schools have a policy of having multiple valedictorian as to not let student who have thrived feel left out. Also in HER class there were only one other black student... news flash there is not just one period of AP classes! There may have been a class that was half and half, but it just wasn't hers. Please remember people you are reading the words of a high school student... just sounds like a little bit of drama from a teenager.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:40 am | Report abuse |
    • KatR

      Having worked for a school district with over 30,000 students I agree with most of what you say. However, your assumption about only one AP class not being the norm, you are incorrect. There were several AP classes at the various high schools in the district where I worked but they were in various subject areas. The norm was one AP class for each subject area.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:56 am | Report abuse |
    • Come on

      Well even though you have worked in a big district, I have also learned and taught in a large district. I'm a world history teacher. I teach 4 AP classes of which all are the same subject. This is normal in our district and many other districts I've had job offers with. So sorry your one district isn't advanced enough to have more then one class, but you mam are incorrect.

      July 27, 2011 at 12:02 pm | Report abuse |
  6. DGirl101

    Lady, you made VALEDICTORIAN!!! Everyone is proud for you – who cares who else made that too? When I graduated, we had more than one valedictorian and their GPAs were different too. Besides, you were the top valedictorian, so who cares?

    July 27, 2011 at 11:42 am | Report abuse |
  7. A.

    I'm of two minds for this case. On one hand, i do agree with the principal's handling of the valedictorian status, due to what the handbook says:
    "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."

    However, her allegations of black students being persuaded not to take AP classes is troubling. I hope that if this is true, she has proof. I'd hate to see a true act of racism like that go unpunished.

    Good luck to ya kym, hope the truth comes out.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:43 am | Report abuse |
  8. Yo Yo...

    It's Arkansas what you expect...I mean really!!

    July 27, 2011 at 11:44 am | Report abuse |
  9. yo yo

    Its funny how when we are winning in sports and making the white man money, we are great black people. But when something like this comes up, they always say we try to play the race card. Make your minds up

    July 27, 2011 at 11:46 am | Report abuse |
  10. CANDY B.

    White parents fight for their kids all the time and most of the time other whites support and encourage it. Now this young lady's mom is supposed to accept whatever the school says without challenging them (as she has a RIGHT to do!)? She is absolutely right in taking on an injustice. Whites sue all the time over "race based admissions" or when they feel like a black student with a lower GPA got in a college and they didn't when they DESERVED it, just as this young lady does. For some reason there is a perception that black parents don't care as much about their kids, and when it seems that they are concerned about their kids' education then they're supposed to keep quiet and let the powers that be make all the decisions. I applaud this mom and I hope that other black parents realize that they should challenge the system more often.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:46 am | Report abuse |
    • A

      You're right, it is ridiculous when white parents resort to legal action when they perceive injustice, just as this situation is ridiculous. Propensity to sue a school system is not representative of how much you love your child. The parents of the children who, according to the article, were discouraged from taking AP classes should sue. The student in question, however, took full advantage of the school system and should be thankful for the opportunities that she has now. There was unfairness in the deciding of my school's valedictorian and I accepted the decision and was thankful for the educational experience provided to me free of charge (except for parental taxes) by the State. If the student in question here feels that a wrong has been perpetrated, I hope she donates all that money to her classmates that were discouraged from seeking higher level classes, as they are the ones who have really been wronged here.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:51 am | Report abuse |
    • black guy

      O grow up. All parent care, we know this. But frivolously suing a school hurts all. It takes money away from education and hurts the students of the future. Its not like the school is for profit it will all be coming from taxes and WHY! School policy is to have multiple winner, so they should change school policy because she is black, no. Man, and people wonder why I don't spend time with other black people, its all complaining when really they create most of their own problems. AND to all black people out there, I don't hear obama complaining about how him being black stopped him, take a lesson, man up, and stop blaming the ignorant few that you almost never see in the "real world" and take responsibility for your own actions

      July 27, 2011 at 11:54 am | Report abuse |
  11. A

    This is a frustrating issue that happened at my HS in a situation that had nothing to do with race. In most public HS's there are varying levels of classes–normal, honors, and AP. If a student takes more of the most difficult s/he is more likely to score slightly lower because of the rigor. It is normal (and in their handbook) that these students will also be considered for valedictorian.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:46 am | Report abuse |
  12. OldGoat

    Here we go again with the "whole world is against me because I'm black and bore a child out of wedlock" routine. Being valedictorian is ephemeral at best. Being responsible is a life-long attribute. Perhaps she should concentrate on being responsible, which she obviously wasn't when she stupidly got pregnant.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Rick from LA

      She stayed in school, and did the best in her class. That's taking responsibility. She had a child but she is still succeeding. That is much better then those who have children later in life and become burdens to tax payers. I will take a 17 year old mother with a bright future over a 30 year old mother with none.

      July 27, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • StephenG

      Wimberley has the HIGHEST grade point after all weighting for AP/Honors classes as calculated based on district policy. The mislabeled "co-valedictorian" does not have an equal GPA.

      The school district is going against their own awarding policy. The Wimberley family did not have an opportunity to contest or discuss this PRIOR to graduation or going public.

      A case is warranted to discovery what motivated the district to assign a co-valedictorian and go against it's own grade weighting policy. The district SHOULD HAVE given this due dilligence with the Wimberley family than to let it escalate into a fully case.

      July 27, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kitten

      Lets not forget what State this took place in. It's Arkansas.....enough said...and from reading most of the earlier comments, most must be from White/Caucasions...... again, enough said

      July 27, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Get Over It

    Are yall missing the point – "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." – Wimberly didn't have the higtest GPA – make since now!

    July 27, 2011 at 11:48 am | Report abuse |
    • A. Goodwin

      "students with lower GPAs who are taking more or harder classes will not be penalized." Try reading. In a nutshell, if she was taking AP classes and the smoe next to her was taking home economics and aceing that shouldn't the student taking the AP classes get the acollades?

      July 27, 2011 at 11:51 am | Report abuse |
  14. Jason

    Gosh....I wish I was black so I had something to blame everything in my life on too. It sure would be easier to be able to pull out the race card every time something doesn't go my way. Being white is no fair! I actually have to achieve things without affirmative action, the NAACP and all the other agencies only out there to continually give blacks the fallback or excuse they need when they fail. Of course her being a teenage mother is also because the white man put her in that situation too. Where is Jesse Jackson when justice needs to be served! The rest of the 46% of the blacks in that school need to sue too! I'm sure Obozo will back you up if needed.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:52 am | Report abuse |
    • Robert

      So much Fail.

      July 27, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Koon Boon

    GIbs muh dat skrilla and screaming Dats Rayciss. Is anyone surprised by this, first to play the race card.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:54 am | Report abuse |
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