By Emmalee Abel
PINE BLUFF, Arkansas – A high school southeast of Little Rock would not let a Black student be valedictorian though she had the highest grade-point average, and wouldn’t let her mom speak to the school board about it until graduation had passed, the graduate claims in Federal Court.
Kymberly Wimberly, 18, got only a single B in her 4 years at McGehee Secondary School, and loaded up on Honors and Advanced Placement classes. She had the highest G.P.A. and says the school’s refusal to let her be sole valedictorian was part of a pattern of discrimination against Black students.
Wimberly says that despite earning the highest G.P.A. of the Class of 2011, and being informed of it by a school counselor, “school administrators and personnel treated two other white students as heir[s] apparent to the valedictorian and salutatorian spots.”
Wimberly’s mother is the school’s “certified media specialist.” She says in the federal discrimination complaint that after her daughter had been told she would be valedictorian, the mother heard “in the copy room that same day, other school personnel expressed concern that Wimberly’s status as valedictorian might cause a ‘big mess.'”
McGehee Secondary School is predominantly white, and 46 percent African-American, according to the complaint. Bratton says that the day after she heard the “big mess” comment, McGehee Principal Darrell Thompson, a defendant, told her “that he decided to name a white student as co-valedictorian,” although the white student had a lower G.P.A.
Bratton says she tried to protest the decision to the school board, but defendant Superintendent Thomas Gathen would not let her speak, because she allegedly had “filled out the wrong form. Instead of ‘public comments,’ Gather [sic] said Bratton should have asked for ‘public participation.'” The superintendent told her she could not appeal his decision until the June 28 school board meeting; graduation was May 13. (The superintendent’s name is spelled Gathen in the heading of the complaint, but is spelled Gather throughout the body of it.)
The last African-American valedictorian in McGehee School District was in 1989. Wimberly says the school discourages black students from taking honors and advanced placement classes, “by telling them, among other things, that the work was too hard.”
“Because of defendants’ continuous disparate treatment of African-American students, defendants’ actions toward the plaintiff can properly be classed as intentional,” the complaint states. “Defendants did not support African-American students, and did not want to see Wimberly, an African-American young mother as valedictorian.
“But for Wimberly’s race, defendants would not have selected a student with a lower G.P.A. than Wimberly to also be a valedictorian.”
She seeks punitive damages for constitutional violations, and an injunction declaring her sole valedictorian of the school’s Class of 2011. She is represented by John Walker of Little Rock.