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. SupportAZ

    This doesn't give us the whole story so, hard to say. There could be various reasons for having 2 including the other student took more classes, was more rounded in community service, extra curricular activities; or morals, they might not want to have an unwed mother as the sole representative of their school Race is not always the case, let's reserve judgement until the whole story is known.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:01 pm | Report abuse |
  2. seriously?

    Yeah, anything that is not completely praising blacks means that the person who commited that crazy act is racist...no question.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Report abuse |
  3. scottxcbad

    Why are there so many racist trolls on CNN.com?

    July 27, 2011 at 8:24 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Just ME

    I don't think this had anything to do with race. But everything to do with which student showed more determination. Clearly the one with more classes and such showed they were determined. The fact that they ensure that the extra classes don't reflect on their GPA is actually a good thing. Gives the students more reasons to challenge themselves. As for the school not offering the classes or pushing the blacks to take higher classes? All students have access to higher classes mainly based on their criteria and if they can take the extra work. Just because they state that no black students had been asked to doesn't make it discrimination. I'm sure there were some white students that weren't asked to either. If a student wants to excel and challenge themselves they need to make that choice for themself. Not blame the school if they don't make that choice.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:10 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Been there done that

    Oh boo-hoo, you're still a valedictorian!

    July 27, 2011 at 9:24 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Been there done that

    And also...it's not based on your school performance alone, it's also based on your school involvement.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bigman

      Sorry but outside activities, fundraising, car washes, helping granny cross the street, none of that is taken into consideration for the Valedictorian Honor at that specific school according to the school handbook policies. Only your GPA and That you had to have attended that specific school for at least 2 years.

      July 28, 2011 at 9:05 am | Report abuse |
  7. Science

    "students with lower GPAs who are taking more or harder classes will not be penalized"

    As far as we know, they may or may not have taken identical classes. I know I won't be graduating from college with top GPA of the department simply because I've decided to take advanced math classes as opposed to liberal art courses or intro science courses that everyone else is taking (for higher GPA, I'm in a life science program). Because the difficulty of the class is being taken into account, we can't say for certain whether racism is or is not a factor.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:28 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Bill

    The principal just needs to make a large donation to the NAACP, and "apologize" to Jesse Jackson and everything will be fine with 2 valedictorions.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • yaleman

      yayou clearly are sincere about the issue

      July 28, 2011 at 1:08 am | Report abuse |
  9. Mike F. Jones

    Ay don't worry, some day a black is gonna be veledicktorian at every schoo in the country. We aint got nothin to worry about. I'm coo with 2 veledicktorians.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Anthony Quatroni

      Yeah if they don't go to jail first.

      July 28, 2011 at 9:20 am | Report abuse |
    • chuck

      At least we can be certain it won't be you Mike....at least not with your atrocious grammer.....LOL!!!!

      July 28, 2011 at 9:42 am | Report abuse |
  10. lestalk

    Why does the mother say the school doesn't challenge the black students as much. When my son went to school, it was MY responsibility to make sure he took classes that challenged him. I wouldn't leave that job up to anyone else.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Anthony Quatroni

      Because that's all black people do. . . . is place blame, on everyone and everything else but themselves.

      July 28, 2011 at 9:21 am | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Because the school told the students that the class would be too hard –the same thing happened to my daughter. When selecting classes we were warned how the hard classes could affect her GPA adversely if she did not do well. She is taking the advance classes and so far, has a 3.95 GPA.

      July 28, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
  11. gorgeous jennelyn

    A difference of 0.03 and 0.05 is still not enough to have co valedictorian because zero is not equal to 0.03 or 0.05 – if I'm the co valedictorian : just give way because awards alone doesn't guarantee success in real world. Anyways, it's only about $75000. This is for her court expenses perhAps?

    July 27, 2011 at 10:48 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Roni P

    Why exactly does she have to have an illegitimate child. That's really inappropriate of you to make a negative statement like that.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:23 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Jeff

    Now she knows what white people have to deal with daily.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      This is true–except Affirmative Action states that out of each hundred jobs, 95 can go to a white male and the other 5 must go to women, and/or minorities–but no doubt, somewhere, some bleeding heart school also made the white valedictorian have to share the limelight with a minority so they could feel good too. The reasons for Affirmative action is because all races pay taxes so any job which has Government contracts or wants public contracts has to set aside 5% of jobs for those other groups because they are also having to pay to be represented. Of course–we can understand that when 5 out of 100 jobs will automatically go to anyone EXCEPT while males–that there may be at least 5 white males who do not get those jobs–on the other hand, companies who only work in the private sector do not have to deal with AA and prior to AA , the employment of many minorities was about 80% less than we have now (which–either they become tax payers or tax burdens) Affirmative Action is not exactly fair but hiring practices prior to them were grossly unfair. Oh yeah–Affirmative Action also states that if a company can prove no minority with the correct credentials/education ever applied or competed, they can then give the jobs to a white male anyway.

      July 28, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
  14. 750,000

    It's 75k ok.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:36 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Philly, PA

    The valedictorian is, and has always been, the person with the highest GPA. And close only counts in horse shoes. I missed the highest GPA by .01– so I was the salutatorian. Which was the way it should have been. This young woman's acheivement was diluted and cheapened by denying her the exclusivity of an honor which she fairly won. It's that simple. I don't know why they did. And frankly, it doesn't matter - because it was wrong. I'm 58 and white (if it matters to you) - and in my view this young woman is owed an official and public apology.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • mg

      absolutely. She should not have to share the spotlight when she clearly had the higher GPA. An apology should be issued. HOWEVER, money should not be rewarded. It will come out of the teachers' pockets, and the teachers are not at fault.

      July 28, 2011 at 1:08 am | Report abuse |
    • RJ

      But the other kid took harder classes. So what if someone told her they would be too hard? If she wanted the challenging classes, she should have taken them without expecting someone to coddle her. That's what makes a successful person. She chose not to, and ultimately, the other student probably could have gotten a higher GPA if they had taken the same classes as her.

      July 28, 2011 at 9:11 am | Report abuse |
    • Bigman

      @RJ that's the problem, your working with an " IF " but she didn't. All the school handbook says about the Valedictorian Honor is, Graduate with highest GPA in the Class, and you must have attended the school for at least 2 years. I think Kimberly should've received the award solely to herself. There are several "moral" arguments like well she was a young mother, (Not a factor in the rulebook) she sets good examples and is a great role model, (Not a factor in the rulebook) Do the rules suck, yeah of course it does, but that is something for the school to look into for the next graduating class. And for all purposes, .1 or .3 or .9 !!!!!! Why would the " Un named/white student" want to be part of an award, she knows she didn't win by .1 or .3 or whatever, 1st place is gold/Valedictorian and 2nd place is silver/salutorian.

      July 28, 2011 at 9:29 am | Report abuse |
    • leaflet

      RG, the "other kid" didnt take harder classes, she had ONE credit more. That extra credit could have been for community volunteering for all we know. Nice try though, lol.

      July 28, 2011 at 9:35 am | Report abuse |
    • leaflet

      I meant RJ, sorry

      July 28, 2011 at 9:36 am | Report abuse |
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