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. APRIL

    it is sad that people like you still exist but i don't expect much from people who have always abused others.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:54 pm | Report abuse |
  2. J

    @ Roni P- her child IS an illegitimate child because she had it out of wedlock, it's not a racist comment it's statement of fact.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:56 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Christy in Buda

    The mother found out the information during the course of her employment, before it was official. If the student with the lower GPA took harder classes that required a higher degree of effort, and this resulted in the lower GPA, then it is standard to take that into account in the end, and it has nothing to do with race.

    I think this is the case here since the Plaintiff goes out of her way to talk about the perceived discouragment of the black students to take the advanced classes.... sounds like she is greasing the skids to explain why her higher GPA attained in regular courses trumps a slightly lower GPA attained in advanced courses. Any way you cut it - Mom should have kept her mouth shut and stayed out of things until the Principal made the final decision. That is why the Principal is the last word - unless of course you want to file a lawsuit because your precious child didn't get the center stage alone.

    Why is it important she was a "young mother" at 18? Yes, she most likely had an "illegitimate child" and lives at home with her parents. Just like this is not about race, it should not matter if she had a child or not - it should not give her extra special attention or credit, OR be a detractor. Look at the numbers, weigh it fairly, remove race = result.

    July 28, 2011 at 12:33 am | Report abuse |
    • Will

      It is clear you are an idiot. The Plantiff, took the harder classes. Yes, she was discouraged from doing, but the article says she took AP Literature and Calculus.

      July 28, 2011 at 1:23 am | Report abuse |
  4. Yonk

    It's a statement of you reading something that was not mentioned in the article. Where does it say that Molly Bratton, mother of Ms. Wimberly, had her out of wedlock? Perhaps you implied it based off your stereotypes?

    July 28, 2011 at 12:35 am | Report abuse |
  5. -A

    It's not racist Monday you can't be a racist jerk unless it's Monday! BUT it's a little funny

    July 28, 2011 at 12:57 am | Report abuse |
  6. mg

    @ Yonk...Rick G said What did Kymberly name her child? It is in the 2nd paragraph of the article that she is a young mother.

    "She did so as a young mother, according to the complaint she submitted to the U.S. District Court for Arkansas' Eastern District."

    July 28, 2011 at 1:04 am | Report abuse |
  7. Mandy

    Rick...racist or what???

    July 28, 2011 at 1:06 am | Report abuse |
  8. Critical Reading Exercise #1

    People- Reread the article: It says, "... 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."

    I'm not saying that there aren't some legitimate situations where race can be an issue, but it seems to me like Mama Wimb snitched on the news prematurely, Daughter Wimb got overly excited and then consequently disappointed/ bitter once the other student's grade AND credits were calculated afterwards. Pulling ANY card in court for this situation seems 1- a bit overboard & 2- bitter, but finally 3- it is cowardly to make it a racial issue & pull in other teachers/students who probably had nothing to do with this.

    July 28, 2011 at 1:09 am | Report abuse |
    • Jonny

      Practice what you preach, poor reader. Nowhere does it say that the (improperly awarded) second valedictorian took harder classes. In fact, the protagonist of this sad, possibly race-driven tale, had the higher grades AND took the toughest (if not equally so) classes.

      July 28, 2011 at 9:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Rev

      I agree with you Critical.
      Jonny, did you read the rest of the part Critical was referring too?
      "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." If anybody would have disagreed with Wimberly as the second co-valedictorian and said anything about race, they would have most likely pulled the "Affirmative Action" card.

      July 28, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |
  9. E5Mouse

    My daughter had a child out of wed-lock,her senior year ! She miss school at the beginning ,went back to school and came so close to having the highest gpa ,but became Salutatorian,and the coaches son got to be Valedictorian! The kid did good to spell Texas! She went on to graduate college in two years of a four year scholership with top honors! Her daughter is very smart too! Me just an old viet-nam vet is so proud of both of them! We are white , and not racist!

    July 28, 2011 at 1:25 am | Report abuse |
    • ang

      I like this outcome. ..&you should absolutely be proud. U have every right. ...

      July 28, 2011 at 1:42 am | Report abuse |
  10. ang

    The name of her innocent child s not relevant to the article rick

    July 28, 2011 at 1:33 am | Report abuse |
  11. clayton bigsbey

    $75K gets you a whole bunch of crack.

    July 28, 2011 at 4:22 am | Report abuse |
    • Jonny

      How much D have you had to felate to get your own greedy rocks ..? (as evidenced by your foolish post)

      July 28, 2011 at 9:18 am | Report abuse |
    • craze

      What you on Crack Clayton.....you all are stupit. She had the highest GPA and should be the only Valevictorian..you ass

      July 28, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
  12. trppnfule86

    there are NO illegitimate children in this world... ONLY ILLEGITIMATE PARENTS!!!

    July 28, 2011 at 5:06 am | Report abuse |
    • Jonny

      That's an awesome line ... I'll definitely be quoting you in the future.

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

    It's not about what's fair or what should be praised for taking more classes. The point is what's in the School Handbook about the rules for becoming Valedictorian. Highest GPA , and must have attended the school for at least 2 years consecutively. That's it ! There is No " She is a young mother- Lower/Higher her GPA, There is no " Set An example" rule, or if black-give her a larger curve/bonus points, etc. Or if white, smaller curve for mistakes. Does it suck that a student took more classes(Which were optional ! ) than another student and pretty much set herself up to come up short. The point is, EVERY SINGLE SCHOOL HAS THEIR OWN HANDBOOK AND REGULATIONS. This school was pretty simple and to the point. Kimberly should be the sole owner of the Valedictorian Honors. : On another not, she should be an INSPIRATION TO ALL THE VERY YOUNG MOMS OUT IN THE WORLD...........LORD KNOWS ALL THE "MOMS ON MTV'S TEEN MOM SHOULD TAKE NOTES" ..........(All The Teen Moms on the show are White) LOL

    July 28, 2011 at 8:00 am | Report abuse |
  14. nashae

    Just because it says a going mother does not mean she had her baby out of wedlock and the baby has nothing to do with it so mind your business

    July 28, 2011 at 8:39 am | Report abuse |
  15. Molly

    I personally attended McGehee High School and racism has always existed there! I don't know all the ins and outs of this case but I do know that the fact that she has a child out of wedlock is NOT a reason for this to be dismissed! Regardless of the reason for the principals decision, right is right and wrong is wrong!
    The fact that she has a child is an example of her trying to do better for her child and shouldn't be a factor. It's easy to sit at a computer and say negative things but try walking in someone else's shoes for a minute and I'm sure your thoughts would be different.
    To E5Mouse.....GREAT JOB!!!!! You have every reason to be proud.
    Children are not accidents or mistakes.....sometime people just make poor choices. Instead of this woman crying because she had lemons...she decided to make lemonade. Which means she kept going with her education despite the poor decision she made.

    July 28, 2011 at 8:46 am | Report abuse |
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