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. Joe Blow

    Thomas Gathen, the Superintendent mentioned in the article, is African American and points out the specific parts of the school handbook which gives the two students equal class ranking.

    However, despite the fact that it is an African American making the decision and the decision is a solid one based on existing rules people still cry out "Racism!" over and over.

    July 27, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Linda MacMillan

    This is just another example of bias toward color. If a student earned the highest degree of academics in his/her school they alone are the Valedictorian. To take that away from a student is quite a blow to that students abilities. If a school does not offer AP classes to all deserving students across the board and attempt to dissuade students to "keep them in their place" that is prejudice and in this day and age? That is reprehensible. As a white 65 yr old woman I am so discouraged that our country can't seem to get past the civil war let alone prejudice. Girl you keep fighting and don't let anyone take your achievements away from you.

    July 27, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tina B

      What did they take away from her?
      This just hurt her pride. The lawsuit is making her look like a self-centered spoiled brat.
      She was named valedictorian and received all of the honor & recognition that went with it.
      No one cheated her out of anything. If that other student had been named SOLE valedictorian, Kimberly would have a case. Sharing the honor took nothing away from Kimberly; it just benefited someone else.
      Who knows the background of that other student? Maybe he/she could only attend college if they were ranked number one. Why should their dreams be crushed because of 0.03 points? How does helping them harm Kimberly?

      July 27, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • id

      Thanks, it is good that people who know the truth are still willing to say it.

      July 27, 2011 at 6:26 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Joe

    Welcome to America, best country in the United States.

    July 27, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Carter

      welcome to America, the best country in the "United States" that was my funny for the day...

      July 27, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Karen

    In order for the case to be heard in the court chosen, the plaintiff must ask for a minimum of $75K.

    July 27, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
  5. ottergirl

    It's really sad that in this day and age, there is still so much discrimination in this country. When a high schooler gets the highest GPA in the school, the student is the valedictorian. Period. Nothing else really plays into it. The fact that the school chose to dilute her accomplishment really speaks to the educational system in this country. It's still not fair. In some parts of the country, black students get the short shrift. In others, it's native American students. In some places, it's the farmers against the townies. In others, it's native born vs. immigrants. What is it going to take to let merit be merit and stop comparing on things that don't matter? The girl earned the honor by being a good student. That's what counts.

    Co-valedictorian? When I was in school, that was a dead tie for first place – without adding points for this and taking away for that. Winning is winning. If the losers don't like it, let them study harder!

    July 27, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Texas Dawn

    I went to a jr high school in Houston in 7th grade. I had the grades to make the National Honor Society, but my name was not submitted because I was white. The school in which I was in rolled was better than 90% black. I was crushed to find out that every student that made the NHS from my school had lower grades than mine. It does not give a child incentive to excel when that child's achievements are denigrated or downplayed, no matter the race of the child.

    July 27, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • sciihs1958

      Dawn, I'm gonna help you out a little here. The correct word is Enrolled. You are ENROLLED in school or a class. Not 'in rolled'. Don't know if you had happy fingers but it sure shot your claim to the National Honor Society in the foot.

      July 27, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Cesar The Chorizo Champ Of Chihuahua

    It's just high school any way. It doesn't matter.

    July 27, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Bribarian

    Another racebait that CNN supports

    July 27, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
  9. ME

    The white student took more classes and as the handbook says she will not be penalized for taking more classes therefore the 0.03 difference is obsolete. Also at one time because of this handbook rule, Kimberly was stripped of valedictorian. I don't see this Kimberly chic winning especially considering that GATHAN is of the SAME race as her! So how could it be a race issue when a black superintendent made the decision? I wonder if her and her mother have considered the fact that this law suit could cause financial issues that the school has already faced this year with the mileage increase to keep the school open? If it came down to the school closing for financial reasons that this suit could contribute to the closing and cause her mother to be unemployed since she is a school employee? $75,000 doesn't go as far as it use to. Instead or worrying about the fact she had to share valedictorian with another outstanding, dedicated, smart, non confrontational student she should be at home caring for her child and trying to figure out her future endeavors that will soon be approaching her with life decisions instead of being selfish and feeling sorry for herself, thus trying to put the blame on others. I went to McGehee high school and felt that there were students that tried to pull the race card to regularly when usually there was more hatred shown from the black students towards the white students. Honestly I think it is disgusting when the race card is pulled. Be proud of your race and don't blame your race! If you feel like you are being plotted against based on your race then return to the country you came from and then let's see if you want to complain about the same things! There are starving kids in Africa but I don't hear them blaming it on the white man. Shouldn't we be more concerned with the fiscal problems we are having in our country and the debt ceiling that is of obvious importance instead of HIGH SCHOOL DRAMA?

    July 27, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Bill

    If she has the lower GPA with half a credit more and didn't get co-valadictorian, she be complaining as well. You just can't please these people.

    July 27, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
  11. sciihs1958

    What does she lose having a "co-valedictorian"?

    Does this upset Wimberly because the "co-valedictorian" is white?

    Principal of school is African-American just FYI.

    July 27, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Smith

    Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!! Cry me a river. Maybe you were overlooked due to the fact that you are not a good role model for young adults as you are "a young mother" prior to finishing high school.

    July 27, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Neal Kelley

      Cry me a river my A!ss.. She has the highest GPA in the school and you say she is not a good role model. I guess your one of those people that still think Obama wasn't born in America! Fool.

      July 27, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • DamianKnight

      ...how does one go from thinking she isn't a good role model, to questioning where the President was born? I think we might need a road map to see how those two are connected.

      July 27, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • SophieCat

      "Role Model" doesn't have ANYTHING to do with GPA, you NIT-WIT.

      July 27, 2011 at 4:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • MGrant

      That's kind of what I was thinking...a high school mother is not a role model...

      July 27, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bigman

      Point is, every school, has their own policies/handbook of rules. That specific schools' rule's were have the highest GPA and must attend that school for at least 2 years. There is nothing in the Valedictorian policies about walking an elderly lady across the street, organizing charities, doing fundraisers, or if your a young mother, or a drug addict or a bully or just being an nice person. No Where does it say anything about behaviors and setting a good example for others. ! Does it suck, yes, but that rules are the rules. Kimberly should've recieved the Honor solely to herself.

      July 28, 2011 at 9:19 am | Report abuse |
  13. Sally

    I'm glad that this student is speaking up for African American students who were disenfranchised from learning opportunities. That said, I think that she is immature & acting selfishly. She still gets to put "valedictorian" on her resume. Having a co-valedictorian does not negate her hard work. However she is trying to invalidate another person's claim to such an honor solely for the bragging rights. If she stopped her demands at equal access to education I would be behind her fully. The demand that the school district strip away another's hard earned crown is petty, catty, & solely a selfish request. She certainly is not acting like Miss Congeniality.

    July 27, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • SophieCat

      She had a higher GPA than her "Co-Valedictorian" – That makes Wimberly the SOLE VALEDICTORIAN.

      July 27, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • michael

      As a white man who is married to an Ethiopian, please stop referring to Black Americans as African Americans. My white skin does not make me a British-American or a Norwegian American. Black Americans and Africans have little in common other than skin color. Africans do not consider Black AMericans to be African, and in reality they have very little in Common with Africans. Africa is a continent with many different cultures, languages etc... By calling Black Americans African it is insulting to Africans because it fails to recognize the diversity of Africa.

      July 27, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Yolanda Moore

    What is your race Rob?

    July 27, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
  15. yannaes

    Isn't the "race card" amazing..I was told I could not teach "blacks" because I am a caucasian. I don't think I sued the administration of the school district where I taught. I failed to tell you, which you have already deducted, it was the "Black" principal.

    July 27, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Report abuse |
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