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. MGrant

    What part of "AP biology" and "AP literature" classes do you not understand?

    July 27, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Report abuse |
  2. CT

    The article states multiple times that she DID take the AP classes. Where are you getting your information?

    July 27, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Don

    Another student had a GPA that was .05 or .03 lower than hers. BUT that person took MORE classes (possibly AP/Honors) therefore, its very possible after factoring in the higher GPA associated with those classes, that this person had the exact same GPA.

    July 27, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Report abuse |
  4. patty

    "Kymberly Wimberly"?!? Whatever the case, she's definitely smarter than the parent(s) who named her...

    July 27, 2011 at 6:00 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Katherine

    I remember I was so upset that I missed my graduating classes "top ten" award of scholarship by .01 of a point. I took advanced classes too and some who had made the "top ten" were still in basic math. I was very upset about it but hey I guess I should have worked a little harder. So I see both sides. It is a bit tasteless on her part though. It's like winning the world series and still complaining about a bad call.

    July 27, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Taz

    To Michael: Last time I checked, the Black people in this country are here because their ancestors came from where? You guessed, Africa. So what if Black people are referred to as African-Americans? The fact that we are here does not negate the fact that African blood is running through our veins. Your Ethiopian wife is no better than anyone else just because she was born and raised in Ethiopia, and I don't care what her and other people from Africa think about me. She could have kept her behind in Ethiopia and married someone of her own kind, and not a White man, but I guess she thinks she is better because she married you, huh? GTFOHWTBS

    July 27, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Realist

    Why do people keep calling this girl African American? Is she from Africa or from America? My best friend tells me all the time he's not African American he's Black American. I don't go around saying I'm Scottish American. It sounds stupid.

    July 27, 2011 at 6:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bill

      Cuz if you don't use African American they will say your racist, and that will cause a whole nother protest.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:54 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Equalizer

    come on...guys...how often do you see an AFRICAN-AMERICAN as Validictorian????? not in every 1000 years..so give her a break and praise her for that achievement....case closed...

    July 27, 2011 at 6:15 pm | Report abuse |
  9. effie

    rob –

    it's "AFFIRMATIVE" action, and you were probably hired at your present over some more qualified minority individual (or at least one who knew how to use spell-check).

    July 27, 2011 at 6:25 pm | Report abuse |
  10. PinkFlam

    You don't know the whole story, and given the poor quality of CNN's reporting, you're not going to learn the whole story. That being the case, why are you flapping your gums?

    July 27, 2011 at 6:25 pm | Report abuse |
  11. jr

    I went to mcgehee for about 6 yrs. im not sure what to say about all this...although i do have to say in the time i was there...its not unusual to have someone play the race card if something doesnt go there way around there....but i do agree that if she worked that hard and as a mom too, then she rightly derserves to be sole valedictorian. Its a great small town , with great people but it some ways its still stuck in past, mainly bc no one really leaves there. but i think she rightly derserves to be named sole val. the race card being thrown out there doesnt shock me at all and if its true then its ashame....

    July 27, 2011 at 6:38 pm | Report abuse |
  12. kelsie

    I graduated early at the age of 16 with the highest GPA but was not recognized due to "not being a part of the graduating class" which wasn't fair because I did graduate with that class

    July 27, 2011 at 7:01 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Mel

    Here's the part that has not been reported previously:

    Gathen did say Wimberly and the white female student who was named co-valedictorian had “identical” grades of all A’s and one B in core subjects.

    “But n...umerically, the one who ended up with the fewer number of credits ended up having the higher grade point. That was due to maybe one taking band that you only get a half unit of credit for each year. The other took other courses that get a full unit of credit. The board adopted this policy several years ago,” Gathen explained.

    Gathen said that the revised policy was adopted several years ago to prevent students who take a greater number of courses from being penalized.

    “That’s what ended up happening here. The student with the greater number of credits would have been penalized,” Gathen explained. “It’s not a race issue. It’s an academic issue.”

    According to student handbook policy provided by the school, class rank is determined by four criteria. The policy states that: 1) Students will be ranked by grade point average. 2) Grades from all four years of an accredited high school will be used, including Algebra I taken in the 8th grade. 3) The final senior ranking will be figured at the end of the school year. 4) If two or more students take the same or equivalent course work and receive the same grades of “A”, a student with a greater number of courses will not be penalized.

    Wimberly’s attorney, John Walker, disagrees with the district’s determination.

    “You can’t punish someone for having a baby,” Walker told the Times-News. “She was out only three weeks. She made A’s in everything except that one course.”

    “In most schools, most of the time, the top students are only separated by decimal points,” said Walker. “If you make decimal point decisions, it has to be universal.”

    “The counselor announced it. The principal questioned it. Having the superintendent weigh in on the valedictorian decision is so unusual,” says Walker.

    “She has already been denied the honor,” said Walker. “We just want to have the record reflect that she was the number one graduate.”

    July 27, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Spydyee

    If her small town is anything like the ones most of my family hail from then her being an unwed mother is the real problem. I was raised in Birmingham Alabama, not a small town, and I was discriminated against even though I was married and pregnant during my senior year. They actually tried to keep me from graduating with my class. My mother was all over the superintendent about the way I was treated. Oh and I am white so race had nothing to do with my case it was solely about being pregnant in high school. Although race may be a factor believe me that child is a bigger factor.

    July 27, 2011 at 7:08 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Tessaprn

    This is absolutely ridiculous. I am so fed up with this race card mess. If both were identical get over it. If one so much as had 0.01 difference then award it and move on.

    July 27, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Report abuse |
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