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. Some White Dude

    I had a principal once tell me I was no good and that I should pursue a school for underperforming students. It was basically like the movie dangerous minds with less violence. Anyways I went and felt like my intelligence was being insulted. I was a bad student who skipped a lot and smoked pot. I was pulled into the office and accused of selling drugs, because I had a lot of gold on. (All the gold was gifts from my gf and family).. Long story short I dropped out and got my GED so I could enter college where my GPA was 3.70 (not taking fluff classes).. I plan on buying an outrageously expensive sports car and plan on stopping by for a visit. I will park it where I shouldn't, so it's in his view and I will ask him why he never went after the kids who were supplying me with the booze and drugs? Not one of them was in the "special" school with me and I never heard of them being brought down to the office and accused of dealing. His name is "Dr." (Lol) Jerry Davidson at Chippewa Valley High School. From what I understand Kid Rock was kicked out of school too and now his HS wants him to come back for charity events. My point is maybe teachers, parents, and administrators should encourage EVERYONE to succeed and don't single out one problem child, because every problem child has a team of people behind them who made him/her that way. The only exception would probably be Satan.. He had no help from his pop.

    July 26, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Matt Hill

    So sick of race card. Highest gpa doesn't mean you get that honor. I am so sick of black people.

    July 26, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • RJ

      @Matt. It is really funny that some people think that racial issues are a "game of cards". To you perhaps this is all a game of gin rummy or poker, but for many minorities racial discrimination is a deadly serious issue, and I mean that! Racism can kill as it did in Jasper, Texas (Google that if you will), or it can condemn poor minority kids to non-challenging classes and a future of minimum wage jobs. In my experience, privileged people are the first to whine "race card" when their privilege is questioned.

      July 26, 2011 at 7:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • trollhunter

      You sir... are a troll.

      July 27, 2011 at 1:40 am | Report abuse |
    • tcp

      Oh, yeah, THAT'S gonna' help the argument.

      July 27, 2011 at 7:56 am | Report abuse |
    • JohnQ1962

      You should move to Total Drama Island. Drama Queen

      July 27, 2011 at 8:47 am | Report abuse |
    • cyndi

      wow Matt, imagine how black people feel about you....

      July 27, 2011 at 9:14 am | Report abuse |
  3. Gloriana Jacinto

    I do not think this is about race.She had a child while in highschool that is not a very good rolemodel...Yeah very easy to put the race card...

    July 26, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lola

      You sound white.

      July 27, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Romany

    Esther, she didn't say a word about anything until she found out there was a co-valedictorian. Then, all of a sudden, racism abound, in a school that's 1/2 black?
    Would she be suing if the co-valedictorian was black, also? I highly doubt it. SHE's the racist!
    What utter garbage!
    She also puts in her complaint that she has a kid. So freaking what? If she wasn't looking for some kind of break, she wouldn't put that in there!
    she is a reverse racist, and that is that. Period.

    July 26, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • tcp

      No such thing as a "reverse racist".

      July 27, 2011 at 7:57 am | Report abuse |
  5. Romany

    @ Gloriana Jacinto:
    That student MADE it about race!

    July 26, 2011 at 7:38 pm | Report abuse |

    So many comments and our country is going bankrupt. Remember President Kennedy who said ask not what our country can do for you,ask what you can do for your country. Get all the wealthiest people in America to pool their money together and bail out our country. My god they have made millions-billions-trillions of dollars,and they know what to do to be successful. It's time the citizens gave back,and not to expect anything in return except pride in yourselves for getting the job done.

    July 26, 2011 at 7:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • tcp

      Um, not that your post has ANYTHING to do with this story but let me ask you this: Where do you draw the line between "most wealthy" and not "most wealthy"? What if the line is drawn and YOU are on the "most wealthy" side of it?

      July 27, 2011 at 7:59 am | Report abuse |
  7. kim

    Its very sickening that a child works hard studies hard get the grades needed and because she is black she has to share her hard work with a person who did not recieve the same grade. Yes its a blantan racist move and the people whinning and crying was the people who deciced on a co-valdictorian that was not right and most black people are so familure with this kind of unfairness to the point it happen way to often that it hurts deeply and we want the crap to stop. I just tired of it if she where white there would not a story nor would she have to share her moment. Yes its racist we all know it!

    July 26, 2011 at 7:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tim

      Kim can't you see the hyprocrisy in your statements. For years under the policies of Afimative Action people who have worked hard and earned a position based on their performance have been passed over and discriminated against soley on the basis that they do not belong to a favored minority. Further in these cases, the people discriminated against often are completely denied their dreams; they do not have the fortune of being "co-hires,"

      P.S. I am a minority myself.

      July 26, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Marcus Jenkins

    The comments putting her down are clearly written by people who are far less intelligent than she is.

    July 26, 2011 at 7:51 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Marcus Jenkins

    So what that she has a child? It's Arkansas so she certainly is not the first woman, black or white, who had a child in HS.

    July 26, 2011 at 7:52 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Dave

    Heres another case of someone trying to get free money,then we wonder why the country is in the shape that its' in

    July 26, 2011 at 7:53 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Boss Hogg

    This is small potatoes compared to the looming issue of reparations. Slavery, Jim Crow, Seperate but Equal. Time to pay up.

    July 26, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ken

      Sounds like you're well named ,,,,"Hog". Getting a little piggy aren't you?

      July 26, 2011 at 8:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Not A Partisan Tool

      I actually favor the whole 40 acres thing. The US government is the largest land owner over all the states. I don't agree with taking it from private owners as many had nothing to do with slavery, but the US government absolutely did and the descendent's of slaves should get what was given (then taken away) to them during reconstruction. Yes fair is fair, but I'm against giving extra points over skin tone. All colleges (all things equal academically) should stick to the country's ethnic makeup reported by the Census.. That way schools reflect the true makeup of America while being fair to everyone.. Good luck seeing that though.

      July 26, 2011 at 8:25 pm | Report abuse |
  12. EC

    It is a shame that people continue to stir the pot of race relations. How about this? The girl made the best GPA, great for her,esp being a single mom. But, I felt she race baited and used the race card to say that blacks were not encouraged to take higher level classes. Really, how about some self direction? Is the country supposed to hand hold everyone of a minority all the way through grade school and then onto college. What about the other minorities that did not go to AP classes? Just let the race thing go people. It is just that simple. I am sad to see both sides still wasting precious time and resources on this issue. And to sue for 75K? really, how about we take your black card away. NOW you are just like every other american who would rather sue for a quick buck than work for it. Maybe you really are not valedictorian material after all. She should be the first one to take the high road. Put on your big girl pants, that is what graduating at the top of any thing in life is all about. Congrats to her on being number 1, but you lost me with the law suit issue. Please, put the big girl pants on and go to work now. Your 15 minutes are over

    July 26, 2011 at 8:02 pm | Report abuse |
  13. tldixon

    gee... racism in America...a huge suprise

    July 26, 2011 at 8:05 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Jonathan

    I did not get her address, I'd like to send some tissues...I like Dave's comment

    July 26, 2011 at 8:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • tcp

      Dave's not here.

      July 27, 2011 at 8:02 am | Report abuse |
  15. Dragon

    "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 above paragraph begs the question when was the baby born and how old is the baby? Most high school students that are pregnant have to go on home bound during their "maternity leave" or if there is an issue with mom or the baby's health. Did this young lady have to miss the aforementioned 2 semesters for some reason? Just a question and a thought...

    July 26, 2011 at 8:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cherri

      That's actually a good question. I've read a lot of comments stating that she probably missed 6 weeks of school due to maternity leave, but does anyone ever think that she may have given birth over the summer break? Just a thought.
      Regardless of whether she did or not, I really hate to hear so many ignorant adults preach about stupidity like race and make crude comments. I wonder how half of the people here would react if she was their daughter or if their children were in the same predicament.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:37 am | Report abuse |
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