Principal tries to stop speech by valedictorian after he brings up his queer identity

Bryce Dershem continued to speak from memory as his original speech was taken away and his microphone cut off

Rituparna Chatterjee
Monday 28 June 2021 08:50
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Valedictorian’s mic cut off during speech about coming out

A valedictorian from New Jersey has accused his high school principal of censoring his graduation speech by cutting off his microphone after he mentioned coming out as queer and his long struggle with mental health.

Bryce Dershem, 18, is seen delivering his speech in a video posted to YouTube by his father Michael Dershem before there is a moment of confusion on stage. In the video, the younger Mr Dershem is seen starting to describe his experience of coming out when his microphone is muted.

A man, reportedly the principal of the school, gets up on stage and is seen crumpling a piece of paper that was on the podium and signalling for a mic change.

Mr Dershem, a graduate from the Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees, told The Inquirer that principal Robert Tull took his speech and “crumpled it up into a ball in front of me.” He said Mr Tull “pointed to a pre-approved speech they had essentially written for me and said, ‘You read this, or nothing else.’”

The line from Mr Dershem that sparked the apparent confrontation during the 17 June event was: “After I came out as queer in my freshman year, I felt so alone. I didn’t know who to turn to,” which was met with cheers from his peers.

As his mic is replaced, the graduate is seen composing himself for a second and adjusting his cap. After the pause, the teen is seen saying “as I was saying....” and pursues with the speech he originally intended to give, from memory.

“He told me that my graduation speech was not my therapy session,” Mr Dershem, who has spent months in treatment for anorexia, told CBS News.

Mr Dershem said that two days prior to graduation Principal Tull emailed him, telling him “if he didn’t submit a new speech, he wouldn’t be able to speak at graduation,” according to CBS News. He was allegedly asked to remove references of his self discovery as a queer person, and “personal details of me going to treatment.”

“They didn’t want me to say that I was queer, because they said it would exclude people in the audience,” he said.

In a statement to CBS, Eastern Camden County regional school district superintendent Robert S Cloutier said: “All student speakers are assisted in shaping the speech, and all student speeches – which are agreed upon and approved in advance – are kept in the binder on the podium for the principal to conduct the graduation ceremony.”

The district is “committed to the diversity and inclusion initiatives” of the New Jersey Department of Education, The Inquirer quoted Mr Cloutier as saying.

Also read: I’m the valedictorian whose graduation speech about abortion went viral

But Mr Dershem countered the version of events given by the superintendent.

He said: “If that were true, would they have tried to censor me and play it off as a mic change?”

Earlier this month a Dallas high school valedictorian diverted from a pre-approved speech and delivered a rousing call for abortion rights. Paxton Smith, the 2021 valedictorian at Lake Highlands High School spoke about “a war on the rights of her body and those of other girls and women” by the heartbeat bill signed into law by Texas governor Greg Abbott.

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