July 27, 2011 / 10:35 PM / in 7 years

High school student alleges racial bias in valedictorian choice

LITTLE ROCK, Ark (Reuters) - A black high school valedictorian says in a federal lawsuit that her school discriminated against her when they made her share the stage with a white “co-valedictorian” who had a lower grade point average.

School officials told Kymberly Wimberly, 18, that it was because the other student had more class credits, according to the lawsuit. School officials have said publicly that the valedictorians are chosen based on both grades and difficulty of course work.

Wimberly, who said she was the first black valedictorian in more than 20 years at the tiny high school, believes it was racial.

“I‘m trying to prevent students under me from having to go through the same thing,” Wimberly told Reuters. “I think it was racially motivated. Everyone knew I had the highest grade point.”

Repeated attempts by Reuters on Wednesday to contact school officials and board members were unsuccessful.

A day after learning that she would be the valedictorian of the 2011 graduating class at McGehee Secondary School, she was told that she would have to share the honor with a white, female student.

Both students gave valedictory speeches at the May 13th graduation.

Wimberly is seeking injunctive, declaratory and monetary relief from the McGehee School District, the board, the district’s superintendent and the school’s principal, both individually and in their official capacities. The lawsuit is asking for $75,000 in damages.

The superintendent is black. The principal is white. The lawsuit states the school board is primarily white.

Last year, the public school had 340 students in grades nine through 12.

The lawsuit says the actions, “were part of a pattern and practice of school administrators and personnel treating African-American students less favorably than Caucasian students.”

It also says the school district does not encourage black students to take honors or advanced placement classes.

“I hope this wakes up some of the mentalities of not just the whites but the blacks who are so oppressed because they think it is the only way it has to be,” Wimberly said.

Wimberly said she graduated with a 4.0 grade point average and took honors and advanced placement classes. She briefly left school during the fall semester of junior year after giving birth to her daughter, missing three weeks of class.

The lawsuit says that she returned in time to take her semester exams.

She received a “B” in English that semester, but pulled her grade up to an “A” by spring.

The white student had a lower GPA but more credits. But Wimberly said credits only come into play when two students tie with the same GPA.

“They told me I was the valedictorian on Tuesday,” Wimberly said. “On Wednesday, they said I had to share and be a co-valedictorian.”

Wimberly’s mother, Molly Bratton, works at the school as a certified media specialist. On the day Wimberly was notified that she was valedictorian, Bratton went into the copy room and heard staff talking, the lawsuit says.

Some school personnel expressed concern that Wimberly’s valedictorian status might cause a “big mess,” the suit says. The next day, the co-valedictorian was announced.

Bratton tried to address the school board before graduation about her daughter’s situation. She was denied and was told she filled out the wrong form for public comments.

“You stand up, and you fight for what you believe in, my dad told me,” Wimberly said. “This is your first battle, and we will stand by you, they said.”

Wimberly has started college at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. The mother of a one-and-a-half year old daughter, Amiah, Wimberly is majoring in biology and pre-medicine. She wants to earn doctorate and medical degrees.

McGehee is a town of about 5,000 people near the border of Mississippi and Arkansas in the middle of the impoverished Mississippi Delta.

Editing by Karen Brooks

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