WASHINGTON, July 25, 2011—Kymberly Wimberly worked hard to maintain a straight A average. When the McGehee, Arkansas, high school student got pregnant in her junior year, she took only three weeks off from school and hurried back to campus to make up the time missed. She didn’t want to tarnish her perfect grades. She returned in time to take final exams in December that year.
Unfortunately, all the hard work wasn’t enough to save her perfect GPA. She got one B, in English, dropping her class ranking from first to third.
Determined to stay number one and with baby in tow, Kymberly worked extra hard, stayed up late and took a full course load of difficult Advanced Placement classes during her senior year. Those classes are weighted more heavily in GPA calculations than other courses, with an “A” worth five points rather than the four points for an A in regular classes. By the end of her senior year she had succeeded at besting all of her classmates, none of whom were burdened with challenges like hers.
When Kymberly’s counselor finished tabulating the grade-point averages of the senior class, she pulled aside Kymberly’s mom, Molly Bratton, who happened to work at the school, to tell her the news: She had just sent the local paper notification that Kymberly was the class valedictorian.
Bratton’s joy was quickly deflated when, on her way to make copies, she overheard another school worker refer to her daughter’s accomplishments as a “big mess.”
The next day Bratton says the school’s principal, Darrell Thompson, said he had decided to name another student, a white student, as co-valedictorian.
As Kymberly’s scores were higher and there was no precedent for this being done at past commencements, the decision was at best questionable.
Bratton believes this may have been done to avoid having a single black mother honored as the best in the class. Like many southern towns, McGehee is a community divided along racial lines, a source close to the case disclosed.
With a total student population of just 658, McGehee Secondary’s student body is 50% black and 49% white. Sixty-two percent of its students qualify for reduced-price lunches, an indicator for local poverty.
However, it ranks 24 out of 301 schools for reduced-price lunch qualification statewide and is certainly not the poorest school in Arkansas.
When Kymberly’s mom attempted to appeal the decision, she was told she had not properly petitioned to object and would have to wait until June 28. Graduation was set for May 13.
Frustrated, Kymberly’s father contacted noted education and civil rights attorney John W. Walker to see if he could intervene. Walker has a long history in the Little Rock, Arkansas area: He was the attorney who worked with that school district during its infamous desegregation efforts in the 1950s and 1960s to make sure the school system followed through with its promises to protect the first class of black students to be integrated with their white peers.
Walker, a Yale law graduate, put in a call to superintendant Thomas Gathen. He says that Gathen assured him that he’d “fix the problem” and would make sure that the programs at graduation indicated that Kymberly was indeed the sole valedictorian. Apparently, as a lawsuit now alleges, Gathen reneged on that promise. Had he not promised action, Walker says he would have filed an injunction against the school system.
Instead, he filed in court after the fact, on July 21, 2011, naming Gathen, the school board, and principal Darrell Thompson in their official and individual capacity for denying Kymberly the right to be named the sole valedictorian, among other requests for relief.
Gathen told CNN that Kymberly’s co-valedictorian had half a credit more than Kymberly and the difference in the students’ GPAs was .03 or .05. He defended the decision and says it would have been the same if the situation was reversed.
But in an ABC interview, Kymberly said her co-valedictorian agreed that given the racial tensions in their town and school, the situation would not have been the same had Kymberly had the lower GPA - even if by a fraction of a point.
“Anytime there is a valedictorian and salutatorian, it’s just a matter of fractions that separates them,” Kymberly’s attorney, Walker added. “In my opinion, there shouldn’t be weighted grades because it opens up room for manipulation and you end up with controversy like this.”
He said the manipulation can result in negative outcomes in school systems like McGehee’s, where there is a systematic and deliberate attempt to suppress black children.
Walker’s suit alleges that officials at the school discourage black students from taking Advanced Placement courses by telling them that the classes are too hard. For that, Walker claims a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law of all citizens regardless of race.
“When you have a system of blacks not being in top positions, it reinforces the notion that we are not qualified,” Walker said during a call to his office this morning, but that is not true, especially in the cases that Walker has represented over the years.
Walker won a similar case 38 years ago. In 1973, Larry Christopher was determined to have the highest grade in his class and was set to be named valedictorian of his Stephens, Arkansas school. In a sudden unexpected maneuver, administrators at Stephens High School decided to factor in grades from correspondence courses an 11th grade white student had taken between her sophomore and junior years in order to deny Christopher his spot as top senior in his class.
But for the school counting those extra classes not even taken at the school, Christopher would have been named valedictorian. Hurt by the decision, he decided to sue.
In a surprise decision, conservative former congressman and Lyndon Johnson judicial appointee Oren Harris ruled in Christopher’s favor and ordered that he be designated the proper valedictorian. Christopher went on to medical school and is now a research physician in Atlanta.
“Larry Christopher was very smart and ‘looked the part,’” recalls Joy Springer, a legal assistant at Walker’s firm whose brother was in the same class as Christopher. “Back then if you wore glasses, you were considered smart and a nerd.
“Everyone knew that Larry was at the top, even my brother and a few others were also in close proximity to him,” she added, describing how the community rallied around Christopher and attended his court case in support.
In another case, a black senior, Adrienne Brown, was denied the right to be named as the valedictorian because the school determined that she had taken too many AP courses and thought it would be unfair to the other students. Walker won that case.
Brown went on to attend the University of Texas and is currently a sitting judge in Seattle.
Nine years ago at another Little Rock school, two white students from a school district in another state were allowed to bump Dennis Harris from his top spot. The school district they came from weighted A-grades in AP courses with six points rather than five, a violation of the state’s law for determining how to calculate averages for valedictorians.
The school failed to convert the girls’ grades to accommodate Arkansas’ requirements for calculating valedictorian and salutatorian grade-point averages.
Angered by the decision, Harris sued and settled out of court. The school still refused to name him Valedictorian.
Being named valedictorian opens up many opportunities in the race for state scholarships, Walker said. Harris and his family ended up finding a scholarship for him to attend Vanderbilt University. He just graduated from a medical specialty school this year.
In three weeks, Kymberly will be enrolling in the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in its new Science Tech Engineering & Math program. She certainly could have applied and gotten into many other schools, but many in her family attended that school and the decision was to keep Kymberly close to family.
Sources close to the suit said Kymberly’s case is not the first in the state this year, mentioning a similar incident in New York city at Malverne High School in Malverne, New York though race was not alleged as a factor in that case. [Read about that case on CBS.com]. That case received little press and may or may not have been resolved.
The school district has 21 days from the filing of the complaint to file its response.
[Edited to change the name of the city and state where a similar incident occured according to sources. It was not in Malvern, Arizona but Malverne, New York. Edited also to show Harris case settled out of court and that the school still denied his request to be named valedictorian.]
Read more Politics of Raising Children in The Communities at the Washington Times. Follow Jeneba Ghatt at @JenebaSpeaks. Her work can also be read at JenebaSpeaksm BlackWeb 2.0 and Politic365. She also co-hosts a Blog Talk Radio show called Right of Black which tackles current events and politics from a perspective not often seen in the mainstream media.
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