- A high school principal appeared to pull the plug on a valedictorian speech during a New Jersey graduation ceremony.
- The incident occurred moments after the graduate told his classmates about coming out as queer.
- The principal and the student had a weeks-long back-and-forth about the content of the speech, the student told The New York Times.
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A high school valedictorian in a New Jersey town near Philadelphia appeared to have his microphone silenced by the school principal earlier immediately after he spoke about his experience as coming out as queer.
“After I came out as queer freshman year, I felt so alone. I didn’t know who to turn to,” 18-year-old Bryce Dersham said in a video of his speech posted to YouTube. Dersham was the 2021 valedictorian of the Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees Township, New Jersey. He was selected to give a speech during the school’s June 17 graduation ceremony, according to a report from The New York Times.
As he was speaking, Robert M. Tull, the school’s principal walked directly behind him and appeared to unplug cords. Dershem’s microphone instantly stopped working.
Tull also took a copy of Dershem’s speech, according to The New York Times. Then, Tull gestured toward another copy of the speech on the podium that didn’t contain references to his queer identity or mental health, according to the report.
“As it was happening, passion was surging through my veins that, yes, I need to give this speech because this is the exact kind of stigma that I want to fight against,” Dershem told the Times. He said he believed the principal was attempting to imitate technical difficulties.
After the audience cheered him on, Dersham gave his speech from memory. He spoke about his coming out as queer when he was a freshman, his receiving treatment for anorexia, and his previous thoughts of suicide.
“No student speaker was asked to remove their personal identity from any speech before or during graduation or stopped from sharing their personal identity during graduation,” said Robert Cloutier, the Eastern Camden County Regional School District Superintendent in a statement to Insider.
“The entire graduation ceremony with all students’ speeches are on our website,” he added.
Cloutier said he directed the district solicitor to “contract an appropriate government agency to conduct an independent review.”
“The district will fully cooperate with the agency investigation,” he said.
The June 17 incident followed weeks of back-and-forth between Tull and Dershem over the contents of the speech, Desrhsam told The New York Times. Dersham said he submitted three drafts of his speech that weren’t approved by the principal.
He said Tull told him that the drafts of his speech were not “broad” enough to appeal to all of the 500 graduates, Dershem told The New York Times. Dershem told The Washington Post he had been ordered to rewrite the speech with the help of the school’s English department but said the school’s administration still hadn’t been pleased with those edits.
“I felt like I was faced with this choice where I could either honor all the belief systems and virtues that I cultivated, or I could just follow the administration,” Dershem told The New York Times.
When he finished his speech, the audience gave Dershem a standing ovation, according to the Times. A teacher, whose son died by suicide during the COVID-19 pandemic, approached him and hugged him after the speech, Dershem told The Post.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy weighed in on Twitter on Saturday.
“To Bryce Dershem – I’m so proud of you for speaking truth to power, and for your resilience and courage,” he wrote. “To all of our LGBTQIA+ youth – you belong, you are loved, and we will continue to fight alongside you for equality, inclusion, and respect.”
Dershem will study at Tufts University in Massachusetts in the fall, according to The New York Times.