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Is This Small-Town Arkansas High School Racist?

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There was a story posted to Courthouse News Service on Monday about an 18-year-old girl from McGehee, Arkansas who filed a lawsuit against her school district.

Kymberly Wimberly (yes, yes, her real name, what can she do?)¬†alleges the school would not allow her to be sole valedictorian, despite having the highest grade-point average in the school, and it wouldn’t let her mom speak to the school board about it until graduation had passed.

The story was picked up everywhere (here, here, here and here, for example) and rightfully so. If what Wimberly is alleging happened is true, then it would be an astonishing act of discrimination by a public high school. It would be easy to read the Courthouse News Service story and be rightfully angry about the events that transpired, as many people have already.

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.

Pretty incendiary stuff, right? The problem is the Courthouse News Service story, of which every other news article is based upon, doesn’t supply all the facts. Without advocating too much for a potentially racist school district, the truth is we only know Wimberly’s side of the story. The school district, and more specifically the office of Superintendent Thomas Gathen (who is African-American, btw), has so far refused to comment on the matter, at least according to this report.

We also haven’t heard from the school’s principal, Darrell Thompson, who made the decision to elevate a white student into the newly created co-valedictorian spot.

The “big mess” that CNS conveniently omits from its report is that Wimberly gave birth to a child her junior year of high school. Now, that’s much ado about nothing. Teens have babies all the time, and having one shouldn’t disqualify a student from being valedictorian. But it’s worth mentioning on the off-hand chance that the high school’s requirements for valedictorian are more than just the student with the highest GPA. What if they have a conduct requirement or some other such nonsense?

The other interesting part of the story is how the tiny town in Southeast Arkansas (population 4,500 or so) is portrayed in various reports. The high school is described as “predominantly¬†white” by Courthouse News Service. Except, it then writes that 46 percent of the student body is African-American. Now, we’re no linguistic specialist, but the term predominantly carries the undertone of “the school is so much more white we can’t possibly afford to have an African-American as the valedictorian.”

It’s the way the word paints the situation to imply an inherent racism in the actions of the school. Last we checked, however, a nearly 50/50 split between white and black students (Hispanics and Asians account for the remaining four percent, according to the school) is hardly grounds for using “predominantly.’

All of this is to say that the story of Kymberly Wimberly, who spoke as co-valedictorian at graduation this past May, might be an egregious act of discrimination on the part of the McGehee school district. If that’s the case, it would be a shame for a girl who worked hard to get good grades, who is going to college this fall, and who also weathered the challenge of giving birth to not be singled out for her accomplishments.

There just seems to be a lot more going on here than we have the information to process. Until we hear the school’s side of the story, we shouldn’t rush to judge.

The lawsuit seeks punitive damages and requests that school records be changed to show Wimberly as sole valedictorian. We’ll update more as more details become available.

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