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. Tarnel goldstein

    According to student, black students were not allowed to take challenging classes. Well, now we know why you had the highest GPA.

    July 26, 2011 at 8:47 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Daniel

    This case proves it: the white kids ARE smarter. They either keep their pants on or take the pill or have an abortion. This lady will be asking for special treatment in college too no doubt, due to the fact that she'll once again be pregnant, single, and–I think I can assume this–poor and living off the government. This case makes me think Boehner knows what he's doing afterall.

    July 26, 2011 at 8:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Clayton Hall

      The eff do you know the pregnancy rate among white students at the school? Or for that matter, among black students?

      Check your privilege and your racism.

      July 30, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
  3. raven

    Amer- African: Huh ???

    July 26, 2011 at 8:48 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Name*Lyman Howe

    Why does it always have to be about race? The young lady was valedictorian and her GPA was what it was. Nothing will change that. I am a white male, and I can tell you that although I had a perfect 4.0 GPA when I graduated from my little high school, I was not recognized as valedictorian and given the opportunity to address the class because I came from the wrong side of the tracks! They changed the rules so that "honor" went to the rich kid who was "elected" class president. Last I heard he was in rehab for the umpteenth time! Believe me, it's not all about race and gender. Get over it!

    July 26, 2011 at 8:50 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Jake

    A lot of time honors and AP give bonus points to gpa since they are harder. These bonus points (like 1/16 th of a point) are added to the unweighted GPA. This might have been the case here. At my high school, #3 had a 4.0 unweighted, but two students with 3.9s were ranked higher when all the bonus points were added 5.1 vs 5.05 or something.

    July 26, 2011 at 8:51 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Scottish Mama

    Hi! Banasy
    My son graduated this past year and they also had a white and black valedictorian. Ok, her name, her parents were not nice.
    I also read that if you go to Princeton, Harvard, or Duke you are more likely to land a job and make more than median pay.

    July 26, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Report abuse |
  7. raven

    Lyman, I hope you live well,get paid what youre worth and are recognized for the accomplishments youve achieved. Same thing happened in the dinky little town Im from to a good kid who worked hard . Think about him sometimes but dont know what became of him .best wishes to you .you deserve it .

    July 26, 2011 at 8:56 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Nancy

    She earned it who cares if she's a young black mom..

    July 26, 2011 at 8:58 pm | Report abuse |
  9. christina

    i think they turned up there noises at her maybe because she has a child it would be because shes gonna reprasent the school it might not just be her race it might be because of the baby.

    July 26, 2011 at 8:59 pm | Report abuse |
  10. A merican-African

    Oh. Why was I running? After being snubbed at the local diamond mine, I sued, even appealing my case to the highest court in the land...a grass hut on top of a grassy knoll overlooking a populur elephant sniping ground. The tribal chief/mine overseer/judge/jury just laughed his ass off. Then everyone began laughing and uncontrolably. Laughter broke-out of the court-hut spreading out like a schock wave even reaching the sniping grouns scareing an elephant who trampled a sniper. He's ok, but he sued me for a brand-new elephant gun and won. I couldn't afford to pay, and they make you work in the diamond mines if you can't pay...so I ran. "Looky dat wat boay a runnin'"–in loving memory of Margie Shoedinger R.I.P. Sorry it's just this one white boy who remembers what that Elephant did to you and your dad. Poor little gal. (sniffle, real one) hi banasy, raven

    July 26, 2011 at 9:03 pm | Report abuse |
  11. valentijn

    She graduated at the top of her class while taking several AP classes and raising a child. What on earth makes you assume she has any aversion to hard work? Let me guess – you're making the assumption because she's black.

    July 26, 2011 at 9:04 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Manemang

    I bet she will kick your a$$ anytime of day

    July 26, 2011 at 9:05 pm | Report abuse |
  13. teacher in arkansas

    As a teacher less than 50 miles away from McGhee and as a person that grew up in the area, I commend this young woman. Everything she has said, sadly is true. Black students are discouraged from taking AP classes and competing in academic contests in the state. At an event this past spring, a group of white students and their coach were questioning "how the black students earn the right to participate in the program". I had to remind my students that academia knows no color...go in there and think, speak, and allow your mind to lead you to victory. We won and went to nationals.

    As a teacher, I watch coworkers tell a student she will never make it and get use to being another black baby mama. When I complained to the administration, I was critized for not accepting reality and "not to try so hard to change or make waves".

    Amazingly, this story is not being covered by the media here in Arkansas. Thank you, Ms. Wimberly, for stepping up to change our state. Don't let up! It is time things change here. It is nice to see other warriors stepping up and saying "Enough is Enough!"

    July 26, 2011 at 9:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mari

      Thank you for sharing that. It is unbelievable that this sort of ignorance is still accepted in certain regions of this country. I hope this young lady's voice is heard and that this sends a message to every racist out there, that the time has come to leave the ignorance and hate behind and allow and embrace people of any color, race, religion, etc. to have the same rights as their white counterparts. She worked hard to achieve what she did and no one should be able to rain on her parade!

      July 26, 2011 at 9:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jason Frazier

      I don't believe anything you just said. You know how many law suits that would equate to. No teacher has the right to tell any student that. And if they told you to "accept reality" then you should have filed. If you didn't than that's your fault.

      July 26, 2011 at 9:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • teacher in Arkansas

      Mr. Frazier,

      I have no reason to lie. I did what any caring teacher that is concerned about the education of her children would do. I call their parents in for a conference to express my concern over their child's education. I explained the problem, what I did to try to solve, my written copies of what happened, potential solutions to the situtations, and possible repercussions for the child and myself. The decision to pursue further action was left with whom it should have been-the parents and not myself.

      As a an educator, I stand up for my children regardless of race. Please do note, I said my children; for the students that I am blessed to teach, are just that my kids. I want the best for them right now and for all of their future endeavors just like if they were my flesh and blood. It is my job to prepare them for what the future hands them, make sound, good decisions, and have respect for others and themselves.

      Mr. Frazier, until you have actually experience life here in the Arkansas Delta, you have little room to comment. Racial relations are not peachy here. And yes, even the school where I teach we have a a black year and a white year. One year the black student is homecoming queen and the next year the queen is white. It is 2011, the queen is white this year. Why does this exist? Why don't people protest this mockery of equality? Same reason why people don't vote, apathy...and the acceptance of the status quo.

      Again, I comment Ms. Wimberly, for not accepting the status quo here regardless of the repercussions. The article fails to mention that many of the colleges in Arkansas, such as Harding (the university Ms. Wimberly has chosen) offer full scholarships to students that graduate as their class' valedictorian. This distinction is quite important for her; her college education could depend on this.

      Good night, Mr. Frazier. I wish you the very best in this school year and beyond.

      A teacher in Arkansas....winner of the 2010 and 2011 District Teacher of the Year and Parents' Choice awards and Nominee State Teacher of the Year 2011

      July 27, 2011 at 12:16 am | Report abuse |
    • tcp

      And shame on you for allowing a student to lead the way. You complain about the situation but offer ZERO solutions. Why aren't YOU going to the media about this?

      July 27, 2011 at 8:13 am | Report abuse |
  14. Master OD

    The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    July 26, 2011 at 9:09 pm | Report abuse |
  15. j

    *To the ignorant people this is for you* I have come to realize as I have gotten older that other races do not like us african-american people (I am a portion african american like everyone on here is whether they realize it or not) not because of the color of our skin, but because you judge all of us on the ignorance that you see in the world from a select few. I hate when I hear my own kind talk derogatory about white people and other races,it is wrong. I do not like when I see anyone of any race with their pants hanging off of their butts, so please do not be so ignorant to think all black people are the same. I know that I can not change a racists mind, but some of us know that you hate us out of discomfort and feelings of insecurity that are not necessary. No two people are exactly alike no matter what their race is, so the next time I go to the grocery store and a white person walks past your unattended purse in your cart and you don't flinch, but when I walk past you run to get it like I am going to take it (I would never), I will not group all of those people the same, just individually ignorant.

    July 26, 2011 at 9:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • A.J.

      nicely put, J.
      there's a lot of sad truth in what you say.

      July 26, 2011 at 9:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Beth

      It's nice to hear from folks like you. I think it is too easy for us to listen to the angriest of people who fly a flag of belonging to a group and, therefore, we assume the represent that group. I'm white but I had an Uncle who was black. He was a good man...I remember only good qualities in him. He told me, when I was young, that people hate because some people have a need to hate. He said they would hate for the color of your eyes, your skin, or even the shoes you wear if that was the only thing they could find to be angry about. He wasn't treated very well back then and I felt awfully bad about that. But he never hated back. He was bigger than that. And I loved him for it. And he made a difference. Its irrelevant to the subject matter but if we lose folks like you, who will make the world better? Hang in there. Thanks.

      July 27, 2011 at 1:16 am | Report abuse |
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