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. NC Singlemom

    Jessica, this is the same crap they (mostly white People) did when Venus and Serena came on the same scene. Kicking tale and still can do it at Tennis. It was said OH they are playing too rough and this is not what tennis is about. WONDERING if They would have said that stuff if Venus and Serena were the white girls . . .

    July 26, 2011 at 9:41 pm | Report abuse |
  2. steve

    typical black crap

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

      Typical morin crap...

      July 26, 2011 at 10:06 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Sky

    Did anyone notice the other girl took MORE credits? The handbook said that a person with harder or more credits shouldn't be penalized. I think the student with the most credits and highest gpa deserves the spot or equal recognition.

    July 26, 2011 at 9:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Incredible

      1/2 a credit..come on!

      July 26, 2011 at 9:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Frustrated Friend

      1/2 a credit is a lot. I think the top two spots in my friend's graduating class this year were something like 4.8 and 4.79. That's .01 difference. 0.05 would bring you down to the 5th person or so.

      July 26, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • tcp

      Um, .05 is not half a credit. It is one tenth a credit.

      July 27, 2011 at 8:35 am | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      You DO realize that credits has NOTHING to do with GPA or classes being harder right? I skipped the 11th grade and graduated from HS at the age of 16. Even so, I had 7 credits more than most of the seniors who had gone for 4 years. HOW? I went to summer school each summer and took classes like chemistry that would net me more credits–it does not mean anything and no–my credits did not earn me special points prior to graduating though they did help me to test out of college course work when I went to University in the fall.

      July 28, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Frustrated Friend

    As a friend of a white Salutatorian who was screwed over because of race, I really wish people would stop pretending that the world is out to screw-over black people. In her high school, traditionally one person gets accepted to Princeton every year- the valedictorian or salutatorian. This year, almost all of the top 20 students applied. None got in. One, who was ranked below top 20, and happened to be black, got in. Now don't get me wrong, this kid is Smart- he graduated in the top 30 of a class of about 280- but he refused to accept that it may have had something to do with race, and rubbed it in everyone else's face. Additionally, while both the Valedictorian were Highly involved in sports, clubs, and community programs- this kid didn't do any extracurriculars.
    In the case of this girl- would she really be saying the same thing if the co-valedictorian was black?

    July 26, 2011 at 9:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • yalesouth

      it sounds like you are just upset that white prvilege is eroding to some extent. even to the extent that what you say is true, you do realize that yale, princeton, harvard, and dartmouth reserve a fraction of their seats for legacies, who, pretty much uniformly are white. so there is a group of slots at elite schools reserved to white students.

      July 26, 2011 at 10:05 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Philip

    I'm outta here. Rest in Peace Margie Shoedinger. Sorry your sista's are too busy squabbling amongst themselves to notice you...again. How rude. poof!

    July 26, 2011 at 9:45 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Richard

    TNB

    July 26, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Gemma

    Why don't you put down the pipe, and get a clue?

    July 26, 2011 at 9:48 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Red Sky

    At least she's an American citizen!!

    July 26, 2011 at 9:48 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Teri

    Is it possible that she was not a traditional student (due to having a baby) and that's why they selection a 2nd valedictorian?

    July 26, 2011 at 9:49 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Jj

    Everytime something in mcgehee appears unfair it is "racially motivated". I dont think she will succeed. The key question is was there another african american student who could have been chosen co-valedictorian over the caucasian student, if so its racial, if not happenstance

    July 26, 2011 at 9:50 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Travis

    I'm normally the first to call out the people who play the race card, but in this case, I can see how it MIGHT be an issue. One would think that if there were to be more than one valedictorian, that decision would have been made prior to releasing that information to the public. To name a second valedictorian simply to avoid a scandal isn't right. Nevertheless, I smell a rat in this lawsuit. Why is she asking for $75,000? How has she been damaged? Her status as valedictorian hasn't changed. I could understand it if she were stripped of the honor, but that has not been the case. To ask the school for that much money AND insist that another student be stripped of an academic honor isn't just selfish – it's potentially harmful.

    July 26, 2011 at 9:50 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Bobby

    My goodness! Why would such a bright young lady with obviously a great future ahead of her want to take this path? Sounds to me like she is not a very confident young lady. What difference does it make to her? She is being recognized for her outstanding accomplishments. Why does she not seek the moment and use it to futher expedite what could be an outstanding life? Hard to understand what motivates people, but this is not going to help her. Just 18, and already filing lawsuits that may impact her later. So sad.

    July 26, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Report abuse |
  13. SM

    Okay Jason, you're right, black people have those 4 things you listed. Now give everything else in the world to white people and you have your answer on why racism still exists.

    July 26, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Report abuse |
  14. cardsafan65

    i see the bigots are out in full force today!!!

    July 26, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Report abuse |
  15. rDS

    Congrats to this young woman AND her co-valedictorian ! They did a marvelous job and should not get caught up in this petty nonsense. Co-Valedictorian is NOT a step down. It means someone else shares the spotlight. That is not a bad thing.
    Good work !!

    July 26, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • DeWayne

      I am not sure if you understand what a co-valedictorian means. But they are not equal this young African American lady clearly earned the highest gpa in the school. This is not a good thing.

      July 26, 2011 at 10:04 pm | Report abuse |
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