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. 6000 years

    Really? She's suing because she has to share the valedictorian status? Poor baby. Somebody's racial panties are a little too tight. I don't buy the racial inference about the AP classes either. If their grades/scores are capable, then they get the class, easy.

    August 3, 2011 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nicole

      So she should just stand down and accept that she is being cheated out of an honor. What about if she gets passed over for a promotion becasue the other person comes in 5 minutes earlier. Or some other similar situation. She did what she had to do to speak up.

      August 3, 2011 at 4:21 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Cogito Ergo Sum

    No one can take away her achievement, no matter how they try to dilute it. BTW, who wrote this article? Is this a direct quote from the written complaint? Or did the reporter take this from a verbal interview? “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.” Whichever it is, someone should check the grammar and usage in this quote. Last time I checked, it's "we're," not were.

    August 3, 2011 at 10:07 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Wendell B. Hunt

    I graduated from McGehee High School in 1978 as salutatorian because "McGehee is not ready for a black valedictorian" as I was told. My GPA was higher and I took more AP classes than anyone in my class. While it is wonderful for people who want to deny that things of such a racial nature happen, it does. I can even name names, but some of the folks who made those decisions when I graduated are long dead; nonetheless it happened.I think this is surely an example of why there is still so much distrust in America when it comes to race relations. The superintendent's excuse about not penalizing students for taking harder classes; well I don't know now how the grading is handled. I do not know if AP classes get greater grade credit ("weighted" is the term used then) than regular classes in my day. But when I was at McGehee High, it was nothing to "change the rules" to suit the needs of a decision that was made.I left McGehee High and have done well for myself. I am a 1983 graduate of Georgia Tech with a degree in Chemical Engineering and a 1996 graduate of the University of Alabama Law School. I just warn those who are so quick to judge in either direction to be careful about those snap-judgments about what happened. My Alma mater does gave me a good foundation for life, but I am not so sure it couldn't have done in a less harsh way in preparing me for some of the harsh realities of life.For those of you who think I am crying over spilled milk, maybe I am. But that doesn't change whether it happened.

    August 3, 2011 at 10:33 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Wendell B. Hunt

    I graduaed from McGehee High School in 1978 as salutatorian because "McGehee is not ready for a black valedictorian" as I was told. My GPA was higher and I took more AP classes than anyone in my class. While it is wonderful for people who want to deny that things of such a racial nature happen, it does. I can even name names, but some of the folks who made those decisions when I graduated are long dead; nonetheless it happened.I think this is surely an example of why there is still so much distrust in America when it comes to race relations. The superintendent's excuse about not penalizing students for taking harder classes; well I don't know now how the grading is handled. I do not know if AP classes get greater grade credit ("weighted" is the term used then) than regular classes in my day. But when I was at McGehee High, it was nothing to "change the rules" to suit the needs of a decision that was made.I left McGehee High and have done well for myself. I am a 1983 graduate of Georgia Tech with a degree in Chemical Engineering and a 1996 graduate of the University of Alabama Law School. I just warn those who are so quick to judge in either direction to be careful about those snap-judgments about what happened.My Alma mater gave me a good foundation for life, but I am not so sure it couldn't have done in a less harsh way in preparing me for some of the harsh realities of life.For those of you who think I am crying over spilled milk, maybe I am. But that doesn't change whether it happened.

    August 3, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sam

      Thanks Wendell. I read your post and then read the article again. I don't doubt what you are saying with regard to your situation and it certainly makes me question the motivation of the school officials in Ms. Wymberly's case but I think that McGehee's policy on class rankings is somewhat ambiguous and certainly doesn't help this situation.

      August 4, 2011 at 10:47 am | Report abuse |
    • Christina Cook

      I just wanted to say this... you're awesome.

      August 6, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • lorasam

      Good for u! I'm pleased you were not discouraged as so many other students are. No matter what, u forged ahead. Kudos.

      August 9, 2011 at 11:17 am | Report abuse |
    • alexisdumb

      NO, "Wendell" you didn't actually do any of those things.

      August 15, 2011 at 11:27 am | Report abuse |
  5. Wendell B. Hunt

    I graduated from McGehee High School in 1978 as salutatorian because "McGehee is not ready for a black valedictorian" as I was told. My GPA was higher and I took more AP classes than anyone in my class. While it is wonderful for people who want to deny that things of such a racial nature happen, it does. I can even name names, but some of the folks who made those decisions when I graduated are long dead; nonetheless it happened.I think this is surely an example of why there is still so much distrust in America when it comes to race relations. The superintendent's excuse about not penalizing students for taking harder classes; well I don't know now how the grading is handled. I do not know if AP classes get greater grade credit ("weighted" is the term used then) than regular classes in my day. But when I was at McGehee High, it was nothing to "change the rules" to suit the needs of a decision that was made.I left McGehee High and have done well for myself. I am a 1983 graduate of Georgia Tech with a degree in Chemical Engineering and a 1996 graduate of the University of Alabama Law School. I just warn those who gave me a good foundation for life, but I am not so sure it couldn't have done in a less harsh way in preparing me for some of the harsh realities of life.For those of you who think I am crying over spilled milk, maybe I am. But that doesn't change whether it happened.

    August 3, 2011 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
  6. UW Alum

    Those of you commenting that monetary aspect of the lawsuit is "unnecessary" and "greedy" clearly do NOT understand the financial incentives that come with being the sole valedictorian of your high school class. Typically this all but guarantees a full academic scholarship to a college or university. Four years of college at ~$20k/year-I would say that her suing for $75,000 is actually a bit too LOW.

    August 4, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • LL

      Also not too low if Kimberly's Mom decides to leave the school. I couldn't imagine working in a place after or during an ordeal like this that has so much attention.

      August 4, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ann

      I'm not sure what scholarships you are used to but usually a full 4 year scholarship is offered on a contingent basis of a semester or yearly performance in most accredited undergraduate programs. 75gs is not a realistic number as there is no absolute guarantee, the student will be awarded that scholarship nor will maintain the academic performance in order to keep such a scholarship. For the most part, damages in cases like these need to be much less speculative.

      August 6, 2011 at 5:12 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Mitwal

    I gra_iatid nomber 699 out of 700....can i gitt 700k fer my herdshipps!!!!!

    August 4, 2011 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Mildred Buchanan

    Maybe this principle does not know what valedictory means. Well just to enlighten him according to the New Word Dictionary of the American Language, The student ranking highest in the class in scholarship. Nowhere in that definition is there any mention of a co-valedictorian sharing the honors of the valedictorian. Since this co what ever that means did not receive the highest rank in the scholastic achievement why should she be allowed to share in the honors. Also this same dictionary defines the valedictorian as the student delivering the farewell speech at graduation. Now this this Principle is breaking all of the established rules and in fairness to these and all other students he should be immediately removed from his position as he is an obstacle to all the students. He is preparing them for failure in the real world because people even African American will not stand down and they are well aware of their own worth.

    August 4, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mikey G

      How does that dictionary define "principle"?

      August 6, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Eljay McBride

    I hope we can get pass these proplems and move ahead as pleople.

    August 5, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Report abuse |
  10. CHERRIE E. REED JOHNSON

    GIVE the student what she earn you know she earn.it. Don't make a different in students. If you truly care you would not do this to a student who really, really earn her GPA. BOARD member do you not care if you do take some action Now give her what she deserve to have. If you don't speak up you are in the wrong position. You are elected by the people, this make you look as bad as the supterindent who do not care I am very disappoint at your small thinking. Don't keep embrassing yourself by looking silly. .

    August 5, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cornelia Throp

      These types of grammatical errors/speech patterns help keep people biased. The problem is that it's difficult to determine whether the errors are caused by poor education due to discrimination or a lack of effort on the part of those black people who speak/write improperly to learn correct English. In any case, whether it's fair or not, biases would fade faster if people like this commenter would use slightly less stereotypical language. The same is true for white people who speak and/or write with a "white trash/hillbilly/country" accent and would prefer to be treated with more respect. I realize this comment isn't PC, but it does have at least a degree of truth...

      August 12, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cornelia Throp

      As a further reply to my own comment: Actually, the comment above looks like a set-up from someone racist to me, rather than a legitimate comment. I wonder now if a white person posted it and specifically was trying to sound like a ghetto stereotype in order to denigrate black people. That's the problem with comments being mostly anonymous. So.... probably disregard my other comment.

      August 12, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Caniece

    The same thing happened to me over 20 years ago. After it became clear that I (an African-American) would be validictorian with the highest grade point average (in a school and community that was 97% white/ 3% African-American), the school changed the rules so that anyone with a 4.0 versus 100.0 would be validictorian. We ended up having 5 co-validictorians. Furtunately, after the graduation speeches that we all delivered, it was very clear who the real validictorian was that year. I went on to Stanford and Harvard and have had a very successful career....but I'll never forget that I was forced to share an honor that I had fully earned. I do hope that Ms. Wimberly recieves justice for herself, those before her, and those to follow.

    August 6, 2011 at 7:55 am | Report abuse |
  12. Dan Howland

    Sad to read about this in today's world. However, I know it happens and that it should not. Get rid of these teachers and staff that can't get passed their biased thinking. This young women earned the position and honor, give it to her and applaud loudly after her speech.

    August 6, 2011 at 8:59 am | Report abuse |
  13. Equality

    guess white people can't be valedictorians anymore...

    August 6, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Ashley

    You people do not know how to spell.

    August 7, 2011 at 11:04 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Bernadine Smiley

    Fight on, this is truly a discriminatory practice that blacks face everywhere including work.

    August 12, 2011 at 10:08 am | Report abuse |
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