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. Jodey

    As much as I hate the race card being played, it sounds like this girl has been wronged and does have a case. She got the best grades, so she should be the ONLY valedictorian.

    July 27, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
  2. ATLFINEST

    why does it always have to be a racial thing? how about they gave it to her cuz she is a young mother? or because she is a SHE.... racist statements are so last century, come on, the president is black. equal rights folks.

    July 27, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • justaguy

      They shouldn't give it to her for any of those reasons; they should give it to her because she earned it. Being a mother made it harder, yes, but the real reason she should get it is because she earned it, she beat out all the other students and that's all that should matter. There is no tie here, she had the highest number of points.

      July 27, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
  3. common sense

    @Ryan...ummmm..DUH..actually, no one said that this particular student actually took any AP classes. The AP comment was just used as an example of how a student may acquire additional credits. It never said she did. So, why are you assuming something you know nothing about. As stated, her extra credit could have in fact came from an art class!

    July 27, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Swell

      I guess you missed the mentions of AP literature and AP biology. In most schools calculus is an AP class, so that comprises a third AP class.

      July 27, 2011 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Stephanie Palmer

    Can anyone imagine what kind of great things could be done in this country if all deserving young people were given the same chances? I've read about this case before, and it just adds to my understanding that the "powers that be" really don't care anything about what's best for our country. They are only concerned with what's easiest or best for them individually. I'm a retired teacher, and I could tell you about arbitrary and ridiculous decisions made by the people who run our schools. Being a teacher or an administrator doesn't mean you're particularly smart.

    July 27, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Igata Takeshiita

    Good for her. Arkansas is such a backward state that it should be its own third world country.

    July 27, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Lance

    There are only two questions required: Have their been co-valedictorians before that did not have equal GPAs? If not, why change the practice NOW?

    End... of... story.

    July 27, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Nick

    I just graduated this year and we had two valedictorians and, trust me, at my high school race is of no consequence. Race is not the issue, it just happens. Suck it up, give your speech, and be glad you're graduating. Move on and stop trying to get money out of the school district when you will obviously have scholarships coming your way if you are smart enough to be valedictorian. So hush up. If you want black people to be treated equally why don't you take a lesson from Orwell's 'Animal Farm' and stop trying to make yourself "more equal than others".

    July 27, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Kevin Wevin

    Kymberly Wimberly? This name is either made up, or a cruel cruel joke...

    July 27, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Andrew

    what's racist is using race as an excuse to get your way. by the sound of it, one student with a GPA .03-.05 higher than another student who has .5 more credit hours, seems like a fair co-valedictorian situation and the superintendent said it would have been the same situation if Wimberly had the lower GPA...as for teachers "not encouraging black students to enroll in honors/AP classes"? is completely opinionated with little to no way of finding evidence to support or argue either side. if black people want race to go away, they'll need to stop bringing it up...ALL THE TIME...

    July 27, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Bill

    Maybe if she wasn't sleeping around and making babies while still in High School she would have been able to take that extra half credit.

    July 27, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Bill

    And here comes the race card.

    July 27, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Tracy

    Black and Latino students have more chances than whites will ever have because they can pull the race card.
    Dont you think the race card alone is descriminating? It means you side one over the other, which makes it racial. hello. Being a mother dont earn you points. Hell if thats the case I want my points added higher. Get over the race crap. There has been many times that 2 and 3 people earn that spot. I get so sick of hearing "its cause I'm black, or Latino or a women". If you so special go join NOBAMAs team of crybabys and move on. This is unreal that only 2 races can scream and cry and stomp their feet. I dont give a crap what color you are, when you start screaming about race you are the one pointing out the difference, no one else. And by the way, Im not white, black or hispanic so when do I get my turn? Learn to be an American, not a color.

    July 27, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Amber

      Your comment is just filled with unnecessary hatred. And why do you even inlude the president. It makes no sense. Once America becomes a more color blind nation, then the citizens won't make a big deal about it. But the America I live in still seems to notice skin color and have preset opinions about what the different colors mean about a person. The race card is not just in all situations but sometimes it is (I'm not siding one way or another in this case). I don't understand why you are so negative.

      July 27, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nashville

      Yeah. But her GPA was higher, Tracy...

      July 27, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • H. L. Todd

      The racism is just pouring out of your veins TRACY. I could see the venom and hatred dripping from your fangs. Tracy, I have seen a picture of you in one of those old lynching photos expressing glee and satisfaction as the murder of a black person. I understand TRACY, you want "your America" back. We are not going back to those good old days TRACY, so get over it.

      July 27, 2011 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • sciihs1958

      Agree with your post Tracy.

      July 27, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • LittleMissSunshine

      I happen to agree with Tracy(though I hope to put it more softly). I grew up in a racially diverse area and I saw the race card pulled a bunch of times. For the general populations infomation, valedictorian status is not purely decided on GPA; membership in clubs, sports, student coucil, cedit hours, difficulty level of classes all figure in. So as the other student's GPA might have been lower their other activities might have made up for that .5 drop in GPA. I frankly think this is a ridiculous lawsuit and I agree with the comment below of no one caring in a few years what you graduated with. It's the reasons like this that people still see us as a racially divided nation, when the 'minorities' cry foul over issues where nothing is even there to cry foul over. As for those who will undoubtably say I am racist, I am a woman of Iroquois Indian descent, I have an African-American cousin, Irish father, and a Muslim best friend. I have never pulled the race/gender card, I've never needed too. Work hard and you'll succeed without having to make up reasons to have people walk on eggshells around you.

      July 27, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • kutie

      Nope...I DO NOT AGREE WITH YOUR POST TRACY...plain and simple...your bias and I bet you still believe in the "good ole boy network" WRONG IS WRONG! She was smarter than the the other student, and she should not share the stage with anyone. It was her moment to shine...and they took that from her...AND I HOPE SHE WINS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      July 27, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Michael

    In the end, I think she might be a bit selfish. Can't she be happy of her accomplishment and congratulate the other student respectably instead of pulling the somewhat questionable race card and trying to hoard the acknowledgements to herself. Most importantly, if she is so concerned about the schools policies/AP programs/ etc., she should surely realize that taking $75,000 from the school is going to do NOTHING to make it better. Why doesn't she put her efforts and passion towards something more useful than 0,3 GPA (i.e. her child, college applications, her career)?

    July 27, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • tiki

      I'm guessing 75 K will actually help her in such things as raising her child, paying for college etc....

      July 27, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Michael

      @ tiki --

      I see your point, but you must realize that $75,000 would surely help ANYONE, including the school and the students that currently go there. Her efforts seem a bit unjustified and childish all the same. If she wins the case, she has spent thousands of dollars on a lawyer to defend her side, the city has spent thousands of public dollars on a lawyer to defend their side, and the school system loses an additional $75,000. If you are smart and driven, like this girl seems to be, do something positive with your efforts.

      July 27, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Daisy

      Can't the school be happy of her accomplishment and congratulate her instead of forcing her to share her accomplishments with someone who had poorer grades? What's up with that?! She earned it, let HER have it.

      July 27, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Michael

      @ Daisy --

      Your talking 0,03 to 0,05 GPA better, but she had earned 0,5 credits less. Both are taken into consideration in determining a students "rank"; in the end, the numbers are arguably insignificant in determining who is "better". Kymberly Wimberly is being childish and needs to get over herself.

      July 27, 2011 at 5:36 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Josoc

    She could have shown class, but she chose to show conceitedness. This is not assertiveness.

    July 27, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tina B

      IF she had been the one that was behind by 0.03 points, she would be hollering that she was cheated out of it because of her race.
      What, exactly, did she lose by being named co-valedictorian instead of sole valedictorian? It hurt her pride. That is all.
      The school actually did something nice for a 2nd student - who was awfully darn close to being the top student - so that they too could benefit from scholarships, college admission, etc.
      The headlines saying that the school denied her place as valedictorian are misleading. The school gave her the honor she was due. By extending it and letting another student share in the glory took nothing from her.
      P.S. This is high school. Grow up. 5 years from now, no one will care about your rank in high school. The focus will be on what you did in college or your life after high school.

      July 27, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Paul Willson

    So much for Brown vs Board of Education and general acceptance for people of color. And I a white man find that sickening , if true. As for challenging students on race . This is a no brainer evry stuident should be pushed as
    hard as is reasonible./ And that I say as someone who should have been nudged harder. Not doing so sends a real nasty message to students who are of color or just different .

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