Valedictorian sues Arkansas school for discrimination. But is race really the only issue?

(Photo: CNN, courtesy of Wimberly)Kymberly Wimberly speaks at her graduation. (Photo: CNN, courtesy of Wimberly)A black student who was named valedictorian of her class is suing her high school after school officials insisted that she share the honor with a white student who had a lower GPA.

"When I found out I was valedictorian, I was ecstatic," Kymberly Wimberly, 18, told ABC News.

She had worked hard to stay at the top of her class at McGehee High School in southeast Arkansas. After giving birth to a daughter during her junior year, she took only three weeks off from school, returning in time to ace her finals. She earned just one B during her four years at McGehee, and made up for it by filling her schedule with honors and AP courses which, according to the state-mandated scoring system, carry more weight in GPA calculations.

"I'm not going to say it wasn't difficult," she said. "My teachers thought I'd fall flat on my face, but I kept trying to succeed."

Her hard work paid off: On May 10, the school's counselor told Wimberly's mother, Molly Bratton, who works as the McGehee school district's media specialist, that Wimberly had the highest GPA in the class of 2011. The school superintendent, Thomas Gathen, confirmed that she had been named valedictorian.

But a few hours later, Bratton overheard an employee saying that having Wimberly as valedictorian might cause a "big mess." And the next day the school's principal, Darrell Thompson, said "that he decided to name a white student as co-valedictorian," even though the other student's GPA was lower than Wimberly's, according to the lawsuit filed in federal court July 21.

"Defendants did not support African-American students, and did not want to see Wimberly, an African-American young mother, as valedictorian," the lawsuit alleges. In addition to $75,000 in punitive damages, Wimberly, who will be attending the University of Arkansas this fall, is asking that the school recognizes her as the only valedictorian of her class. No legal response has been filed by lawyers for the school district.

"I told [the co-valedictorian] this isn't fair. This is an administrative decision," Wimberly said in an interview with ABC News. In her lawsuit, she accuses the school of racial discrimination, saying that the district is more committed to advancing its white students than its black ones. (According to high-schools.com, there are 643 students at McGehee High School, and the student body is 50 percent black and 49 percent white.) "African-American students were not encouraged to take Honors or Advanced Placement classes," her complaint reads. "Caucasian students had to almost opt out (of advanced classes)."

"We both know if the tables were turned, there wouldn't be a co-valedictorian," Wimberly said she told the other student. Her other student agreed, but was still listed as co-valedictorian and spoke at their graduation in May.

School officials deny that race was a factor.

"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."

According to the school's handbook, the only requirement for Valedictorian is that "students must be continuously enrolled at McGehee High School the last two semesters without transferring during this time." When determining class rank, the handbook says, "If two or more students take the same or equivalent course work and receive the same grades of 'A', a student with a greater number of courses will not be penalized."

Gathen told CNN that Wimberly's co-valedictorian had half a credit more than Wimberly and the difference in the students' GPAs was minuscule-.03 or .05. If the white student's GPA had been higher than Wimberly's, Gathen said, he still would have appointed them co-valedictorians.

"I would have made the same decision," he said. "I was the one who made the ultimate decision."

One has to wonder: Is race really the only issue here? Or is part of the so-called "big mess" the fact that Wimberly is an unmarried teen mom? With valuable scholarships on the line, should grades be the only criteria by which valedictorians are chosen, or should officials be able to pick the student they feel best represents the school?




Also on Shine: