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. Wtkysa

    In most cases, people, even the most vicious, are much more naive and simple-minded than we assume them to be. And this is true of ourselves too.
    The Brothers Karamazov

    July 28, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Anthony Brown

    If America wants to be the greatest country in the world we can't allow these things to happen. We need to encourage all of our students to take AP courses and we need to aplaud and reward the top achiever regardless of their race. The Chinese are coming and we better be ready as a fully united and focused USA, not a white one and a black one. We will reap what we sow if we don't understand this.

    July 28, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Mary B

    This young lady is not overreacting. She is taking a stand against something I’m sure she has seen all her life in Arkansas. What’s killing me is everyone that says, "She should just be proud of her grades and leave it at that." People want everyone to be hush hush about society’s dirt when it comes to race. Hey, here’s an idea, how about you stop being racist so that we CAN be hush hush!! I’m sure she is proud. She deserves to be solely recognized just as any other valedictorian has been. It is not an easy task to achieve the highest GPA out of an entire class and she did it. She did it by herself, without a co-student. This school is backwards and it reflects one of the worse parts of this country. Kimberly is absolutely in the right. She deserves it, so give it to her, period!

    July 28, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • sunnyd

      Absolutely agree. This was a double snub, both motherhood and race. The officials did not want to be seen "promoting" teen motherhood. As a white woman from the South, I am getting tired of these situations. Someone at the school probably called the parents of the white girl and told them what was happening, and they fussed and threatened to call the school board, and the principal caved. I don't think if the situation was reversed, Kymberly would have received the honor. I think Kymberly was the most gracious of the group; she took her honor, accepted that she had a co-valedictorian, graduated, and THEN sued. Smart.

      July 28, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Math

      How is 11 As worse than 10 As?

      Say kimwimb had ten class with all As. 5 were AP classes weighed at 5.0. And she had 4 regular classes weighed at 4.0. The total is 5 x 5 4 x 4 = 45 pts. Gpa = 45/10 or 4.5. This is a pretty good gpa right?
      Now look at the other student. She took 11 classes and they were all As. She had the same five AP classes but she had six regular classes. So her point totals would be: 5×5 6 x4 = 49 pts

      July 28, 2011 at 11:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • SEARK

      I am from the neighboring town, our towns are rivals. However, I have several family and friends from this community. This school has had several African American's as Valedictorian soley before and they have even had a pregnant Homecoming Queen. I am a black woman and I believe this is over doing it. More props to her for having a child and keeping her grades up. Bottom line is it should come down to the final GPA. This is a matter that is way out of hand. When is this country going to get away from racism?

      July 28, 2011 at 11:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Math

      Oops too fast on the button. To continue:
      Kimwimb has a 4.5 gpa as an example.
      The other student with all As and one more regular credit class has 49 pts or 49/11 = 4.45 gpa

      So should we penalize the student with all As and one additional class? Don't think anyone would believe this would be fair to either student to not call them both valedictorians. This is not about holding anyone down, but looking at the facts and making the correct call.

      July 28, 2011 at 11:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • meadowlark

      It makes me sick that in 2011 there is still racial bigotry alive and well here in the United States of America. I am white, grew up in a home, in the 40's, 50's and 60's where parents were bigots and racially motivated to do and say things that were not right. This made me who I am today; not a racist, but a defender of all no matter their skin color. Grow up people, I hope she receives the $750,000 so that she can pay her way through college.

      July 29, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Report abuse |
  4. ETEES18

    Johnnyonthespot You are correct in that being named val. will not be a memory of others in a year or two. However you failed to consider that you finish #4 in your class and that you still remember it and obiviously consider it a personal achievement; well the same goes for Kymberly. It is a personal acheivement that she alone accomplished and can instill in her family members, Present and Future ones.

    July 28, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Beryl

    Clearly you don't like the FACT that this lady out performed her white peers so you resort to inappropriate name-calling. That says more about YOU than it does her. As the only "colored girl" in my elementary school, I ran intellectual rings around my classmates and tested off the charts (above 12th grade) . Parents and teachers were jealous but that was back in the 60s. You'd think you haters would just accept the fact that black children are capable of out-performing whites in many things. Get over it and open a book instead of a 6-pack.

    July 28, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
  6. ChibiHoshi

    What what she doing in the normal high school anyways?

    A pregnant teen in my school was encouraged to go to the learning center or alternative education. With the AP Chemistry class messing with toxic chemicals and the electronics lab messing with lead solder and the block class hours (college model every other day instead of standard daily school schedule) making school hours longer than a normal school and being more than 20 minutes from the hospital it was safer.

    That and the alternative school had prenatal care, child rearing education, shorter classes, longer breaks, and even child care after birth.

    And freshman orientation (over a decade ago) did have honors diploma, national honors society and valedictorian requirements that did include number of absences, class types (Drivers ED and Shop vs AP Calculus and Honors English), number of credits (free period requirements – which lessen credits), and weighted GPA along with tie breakers like school activities and community volunteering.

    My school would have taken her out of the running during her pregnancy regardless of race.

    July 28, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • JJ

      That was YOUR school so it does not matter. Not all schools chose to shuttle pregnant teens into special programs. You need to realize the world does not revolve around YOU and YOUR LIFE so who are you to question why she was in class with her peers. You need to go sit down somewhere.

      July 28, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • BU

      WOW what an ignorant response, after reading about her accomplishments, you even dare to say something like this. As far as teen pregnancy, why are you judging her for that!!??? Situation that she found herself in does not reflects who she is, it is how she reacts to it and she reacted pretty darn good! Val dict while raising a beutiful child!!!!! You will never be at her level, so please give it a break!

      July 28, 2011 at 7:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gretchen

      Then YOUR school would have done Ms. Wimberly a great disservice. Grow UP, and get a life.

      July 29, 2011 at 1:08 am | Report abuse |
    • Clayton Hall

      Yeah, and your school would have been guilty of discrimination.

      July 30, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Name*lccares

    This is so unfair.

    July 28, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Randall

    Sadly, I'm thinking this is more about the young lady having a child so young and unwed...not her race. Not exactly something we want our children to do. Everyone knows she has the highest GPA if she wants to sue like so many in our broken and failing american culture, go ahead.

    July 28, 2011 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Kamaria

    Ehh...I'm not sure about this. If what she says is true about black students being discouraged from taking higher courses and all, she might have some case here. But if the other student was on the same level as her...Still though, I thought there was a level below valedictorian.

    I'm not 100% sure this is racism. The girl hasn't had her honor taken away from her, at least. I'll be interested in seeing where this case goes.

    July 28, 2011 at 4:47 pm | Report abuse |
  10. simiskin

    To be a valedictorian is not representing academics only, but also other characters and morals. This is not a racist thing. Being an unwed mother without a father is also a main reason for this withdrawal.

    July 28, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Intelect

      That's an idiotic statement, being valedictorian is strictly academic. The fact that she has a child out of wedlock has nothing to do with her academic performance; if she adheres to school rules and government laws, nothing should negate her academic achievement.

      July 28, 2011 at 6:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • JJ

      You are wrong. Valedictorian is STRICTLY about academics. It's backward thinking like that which makes people think hey can not rise above being a pregnant teen. I personally know people who has babies as teens who are now medical doctors, lawyers and accountants. A school system shouldn't be discouraging children who rise above it all despite their mistakes.

      GTFOH!

      July 28, 2011 at 6:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • liv

      JJ You are wrong . Being a valedictorina is more than just the gpa. It has to do with extracurricular activities as well. Our high school ( predominantly asian ) had 5 students with a 4.18 gpas (basically straight As with the maximum AP extra credit would allow ) It would be ridiculous to have 5 valedictorians . After considering all the qualifications, the school chose one valedictorian from the group

      July 28, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Katherine

      simiskin, YOU are wrong. Valedictorian is about GPA only. My graduating class had seven, yes SEVEN, valedictorians. We did not have weighted GPAs, and all seven students had achieved 4.0 GPAs. They were all named as co-valedictorians, and together they arranged a speech for graduation where all of them spoke. Yes, it's true that most of them had participated in sports, band, student government, or AP classes–some form of "extra" involvement in school. But their recognition was based solely on their grades, an achievement to be proud of, in and of itself.

      July 28, 2011 at 11:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Katherine

      In my previous response, I was talking to Liv, not the original commenter of the thread. Apologies for the mistake.

      July 28, 2011 at 11:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Clayton Hall

      Discrimination against single mothers is still discrimination.

      July 30, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Della

    Isn't it time we do the right thing for all mankind. Give Kimberly her deserveing due! Remember, the last shall be first, and the first last.

    July 28, 2011 at 5:40 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Bubba Baxter

    Well here we go again..the ole race card..
    How about because a white student is equal in grades, he should step back and let this
    stellar model of society be class Val. Maybe she can breastfeed while she reads her speech..
    Come on people .... cant you see what the media is trying to do here? give it a rest....

    July 28, 2011 at 7:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ronald Pendleton

      You know I know there are those who would call your comment racist. but I totally disagree your a sinful, church goer who has decided that any comment that you could make, would reflect your community and ancestor's their continued sinful generational curse. but know this one day soon you will have to give an account for every unclean word, thought,and actions. so know this you only get way temporarily, you will have to answer to GOD for every Idle word!

      July 28, 2011 at 9:06 pm | Report abuse |
  13. lotsahelp

    Good grief- the article talked about how close the points were and all the rules tied to this. I think the mom was an idiot for jumping the gun. Many schools have co-valecditorians. If this was reversed and a white student was griping everyone would be telling her to get over it. And yeah she had great parents and STILL had a baby while in high school. hooray for her....

    July 28, 2011 at 7:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ronald Pendleton

      read reply to ugh, ugh Bubba, same for you!

      July 28, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Melanie M.

    There are so many people on here that are suppose to be adults but would rather act like children. Kym has worked hard and has earned the right to be valedictorian and she did so while taking care of her child. The issue isn't about her having a baby out of wedlock, that's no one's business. So, she had a baby while in high school, she's not the first and she sure won't be the last. She had the highest gpa in her class and she deserves to stand in the spotlight alone. Racism is a big issue and a lot of people are trying to act as though she's blowing this out of proportion, but she's doing what so many others never had the courage to do, bring it to the world's attention. I've sat in classes when the teacher's attention was placed directly on the whites and acted as though we weren't even present, racism is real and it's a shame that we have to go through this. Many white teachers that teach AP courses doubt us as black students and until others have walked in our shoes, it will never be understood how we feel. My cousin deserves an apology and the money because all of this could've been avoided but people wanted to point out the flaws of others. I'm not understanding how she was valedictorian alone at first, but then the principal decides he wants her to share. Since when does the principal choose which student gets to be valedictorian????

    July 28, 2011 at 9:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Debbie

      In those classrooms, where the questions were directed towards the white kids, where they white teachers? Are you telling me in a similar situation if you were in a classroom majority black students and black teachers that the white students would be the ones getting all the questions/attention? It's a two way street and unfortunately it happens every day in both races.

      July 30, 2011 at 8:07 pm | Report abuse |
  15. maryjane

    I experienced this in Louisiana schools not even 30 years ago: 1983-84 (7th grade; I wanted to take French but only white kids were allowed to) and 1986-87 (10th grade; the gifted/talented curriculum coordinator refused to let me take the test and said I wouldn't get much benefit from the program anyway b/c it was too late in my academic career–NOT TRUE; and she let white students get in & stay in even when they didn't meet min. standards). Several other instances but none of us has enough time for me to list them all. I am proud of Ms. Wimberly for fighting. I wish I had done so back then, but I didn't have the same power & resources at my disposal that she has.

    July 29, 2011 at 2:58 am | Report abuse |
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