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. la

    Does no one else think its funny that her name is Kymberly Wimberly?

    Anywho – so don't schools have salutatorians anymore for kids who are 2nd best or something. Doesn't it make sense to give the student with the highest GPA the top honor and award the second highest honor accordingly? I don't know if this is about racism but it does seem rather unfair.

    July 29, 2011 at 11:34 am | Report abuse |
    • EthicalOne

      I, too, think the name is funny and agree with your "anywho" statement – that the person with the second highest GPA should have been the salutatorian. It seems clear that Ms. Wymberly was discriminated against – whether it was because she is black or because she is a teen mom is not so clear. See my comment to Azian below.

      July 30, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
  2. TXGrad

    It really comes down to the school's policies on what it means/takes to be a valedictorian (usually solely based on weighted GPA) and precedent.

    Some commenters have said this is just an honor most people will forget about in a year or two. In reality, being a valedictorian CAN play a HUGE role in your life simply because it opens up more scholarship opportunities. Many colleges/local businesses offer scholarships to these students to reward them for their hard work. For example, if you are a TX valedictorian, you can receive FREE TUITION to Texas A&M for your freshman year.

    Is it fair that they are letting another student with an inferior (yet impressive) GPA also lay claim to this money? Not if it violates school policy. It may seem unfair if the 2nd student received 11As as opposed to the 1st student's 10As (if the 2nd student took an extra non-weighted course, thus lowering the overall GPA) but this happens every year across the nation. Many students who are aiming for that top spot play the system and choose courses based on maximum GPA points. Some opt out of taking a sport for credit and participating in practices before or after school just so they don't lower their GPAs with unweighted classes. It's unfortunate, but it happens. If the school's policy states that the valedictorian is decided based solely on GPA, this student has a strong case.

    July 29, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Azian

    What ! An asian is not the top GPA holder in this school? Must be a hillbilly school. In any case, a 18 year old pregnant girl doesnt deserve to be valedictorian. Blacks are good at whining, sports and music ; not good at anything else much. I am sure she must have earned her GPA with courses in non-STEM fields.

    July 30, 2011 at 10:56 am | Report abuse |
    • EthicalOne

      Azian, yours is clearly a racist comment. Kymberly took AP classes. The article clearly states that there are two important variables, one is race and the other is that the person with the highest GPA was, also, a teen mom. If the school regulations do not indicate that a being a teen parent will negatively impact any school honors (which would be discrimination) then Ms. Wymberly should be the one and only valedictorian.

      According to how I read the comments above there may have been previous African American valedictorians at Ms. Wymberly's school who were recognized as such. If this is true the discrimination may be more related to the fact that Ms. Wymberly is apparently an unwed teen mom than to her race.

      You apparently need to be aware that this country has a long history of discrimination against African Americans and that if they (and other moral, ethical people) did not complain they would still be enslaved. Your comment indicates acceptance of prejudicial stereotypical dribble which is anti-hillbilly and anti-black. I am not sure if you are Asian but it is clear that your comment is RACIST and you are a bigot – not an attractive trait.

      July 30, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Millicent Weech

    In this Era, we as people are suppose to move forward – instead we continue to keep the past. As people we are skilled with many talents and intellectual abilities, and to keep someone from receiving an achievement for their efforts signified ones ignorance of Life. Black children of this world – keep achieving your goals and academic abilities – you are the future and it has and always will be a long haul – remember no one can take away what the creator has given you. If Jesus did not proceed with his mission, of which he was given we as a people will not be where we are today! Jesus wept and we will continue to weep – but the Lord our Savior knows what we do. One door close and a better one opens. He is the maker and his works never go in vain. My daughter pregnant at 13 years old – dropped out of school in the 12th grade – received her GED two months before her graduation- and received a Medical Assistance Certificate in the same year- two years later got her Certified Nurse Assistance Certificate- two year later became a License Practical Nurse and continued her goals and received her Registered Nurse Board Certification this year. I am so proud of her – because I was not there for here during her youth – but nothing stopped her from pursuing – because I was not there. I am proud of you to Kymberly Wimberly – keep doing what is right. Your position in Life will be more advantageous in the future. Just another hurdle to cross.

    July 30, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • jim

      You can't expect not to be a joke with a name like Kymberly Wimberly.

      August 1, 2011 at 8:42 am | Report abuse |
  5. Debbie

    It can be as simple as them not wanting their school valedictorian being still in high school and already a parent? I know that's harsh but that may be the bigger reality than race?

    July 30, 2011 at 7:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Reggie

      "It can be as simple as them not wanting their school valedictorian being still in high school and already a parent? I know that's harsh but that may be the bigger reality than race?"

      Are you serious? A teen mother works her ass off in high school despite the fact that she's a teen mother and ends up with the highest GPA in the school and the school wants to hide that success story? If anything it would shed favorable public light on the place. Why would they want to hide that? Its a boon to their school that they had a student that was able to achieve that. While taking AP classes! AP classes are not easy, I speak from experience. A lot of work and writing and studying to pass those classes let alone ace or do well in them.

      Lets be real here....race was probably the reason. There are still racists in the US even if some people are not willing to believe and confront this reality. They'd rather propose false alternatives that are not as controversial

      August 1, 2011 at 1:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Jared

      And that's too bad! The school district needs to get over their disdain for any characteristic of this situation and make it right by awarding the girl SOLE valedictorian status. Period.

      August 3, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Report abuse |
  6. G Ervin

    Things still are the same. People still say and do what they want. But, they forgot that what used to be is no longer tolerared.. School was wrong-wrong-wrong. It needs to be corrected and done publicly. If it had been the other way around Kimberly would not have been given the chance to be co-valedictorian. So school board get your act together and do the not only correct thing but do what you know in your heart is right (that is if you have one). She worked hard and she has earned it.

    July 30, 2011 at 11:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Justin Case

      "If it had been the other way around Kimberly would not have been given the chance to be co-valedictorian."

      How do you know that? ESP? Crystal ball?

      August 3, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Report abuse |
  7. CharlieSeattle

    The article said she was a young 18 year old mother.

    No mention of a husband. That was not to skillfully left out.

    An unwed mother should NOT be a Valedictorian under any situation.

    The author may wish to add the missing details.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      Charlie – please point out where it says mothers out of wedlock aren't eligible to be valedictorian. She earned it, considering the criteria is solely based on academics and not her social situation. I really wish people like you didn't have an opinion.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kaiti

      You're joking, right? If not... well, maybe you should look at a calendar. This isn't the Dark Ages, after all.

      August 1, 2011 at 2:16 am | Report abuse |
    • Amanda

      Charlie, If an unwed mother should not be Valedictorian regardless of how much work they have done, then a person with such a narrow range of thought such as yourself shouldn't have an opinion.

      August 1, 2011 at 11:34 am | Report abuse |
    • Jared

      Seriously, Charlie? You believe that this woman should not be awarded valedictorian status because she is a mother and is not married? You scare me. Take your beliefs and go hide in your cave because that's where you belong. It's 2011 – you (and others who agree with you) need to get with the times.

      August 3, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Just_Wow

      Charlie:

      Somewhere out there is an "unwed father" to Kimberly. If he had a 4.2 GPA, should he also not be able to be a Valedictorian, "under any case"?

      Such narrow-mindedness. Amazing it still exists.

      August 3, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Darlene Smith

    I will say it a million times, It is not the school it is the teachers". I f you have good caring teachers, none of that would happen. The pricipal and other administrators should lose their jobs over this. Race should have nothing to do with it.
    GPS speaks for it self. When I went to college I was told that a good teacher could make a student feel as if they could
    walk on water.

    July 31, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
  9. charliebelin

    For more detials go here: http://www.edspressway.com

    July 31, 2011 at 10:08 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Dr. Jesse J. Hargrove

    Focus on the criteria, her GPA, and the policy for awarding the Valedictorian Honor. This avoids any assumptions and misinformation. –JH

    July 31, 2011 at 10:18 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Teacher

    It's funny, when I first heard this story my thought was "Wow, that still happens today?" and after reading everyone's inflammatory comments, it all makes sense.

    August 2, 2011 at 9:41 am | Report abuse |
  12. DinOP

    At least she learned how to file a lawsuit. Great job!

    August 2, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Bigman

    For the people saying get over it , or it's not a big deal. SHOVE IT! If it's never happened to your, or your kid then your bumper sticker should read, " I'M AN EXPERT IN MY FIELD, BUT I DON'T KNOW MY FIELD "

    August 2, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Andrea

    Unbelievable! I cannot, well I can believe this is still going on today. Keep your head up Kimberly.

    August 3, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Kevin

    She's not very smart if she is trying to eat that microphone.

    August 3, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Report abuse |
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