NJ valedictorian LGBTQ speech lower, may even see federal civil rights overview

VOORHEES TOWNSHIP, NJ – A New Jersey high school senior was briefly silenced during his initial remarks about mental illness and his own experience as a queer-identifying teenager who survived high school.

Now the Voorhees School District wants a federal agency to investigate whether it acted inappropriately when it muted Bryce Dershem’s microphone and allegedly crumpled the paper copy of his speech on slides in front of 450 graduates and their families.

Robert Cloutier, superintendent of Camden County’s Eastern High School District, told the Courier Post, part of the USA TODAY Network, Monday that he had directed school district attorney Anthony Padovani to “contact an appropriate government agency to conduct an independent review.”

Padovani said he filed a complaint with the US Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office in Cherry Hill, asking the agency to investigate whether the Dershem school district had discriminated against.

“We have now been accused of an act of discrimination,” said Padovani. “We can’t really conduct our investigation … let an independent see if we did anything wrong. That’s fair.”

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Padovani is in the process of collecting materials for the civil rights office, he said.

Padovani and Cloutier said the school district is ready to cooperate fully in the review.

By the time Dershem, 18, stepped up to the microphone on June 17 with a glowing rainbow LGBTQ Pride flag wrapped around his red graduation gown, he was already negotiating his speech with high school administrators, Dershem said opposite USA TODAY.

“I was excited to tell my story, I was nervous. I was nervous because I knew some of the school administration didn’t want me to tell my story, but I couldn’t be true to myself,” said Dershem.

In the June 17 opening video posted on the Eastern Regional High School website, Dershem opens the ceremony with traditional remarks and thanks friends and family for believing in every graduate in the field.

Then he slowly shared his version of the Eastern Regional High School experience.

“After I came out as queer, I felt so alone,” he said, as Rector Robert Tull in a black robe and hat steps into the frame behind him and leans backstage.

The microphone slowly turns off and the rest of the sentence falls silent.

“I didn’t know who to turn to,” were the last words he said before the microphone fell completely silent.

When he realized the microphone was off, the crowd burst into applause for him.

Tull goes to the podium, takes the microphone out of its holder, holds it over his head, says something to Dershem, and then walks off the stage with the paper copy of Dershem’s speech in hand.

At the beginning of the school year, Dershem sought inpatient and outpatient treatment for anorexia, which he originally wanted to mention in his speech. He hoped to open up his experiences to his classmates and encourage others to seek psychological treatment if necessary.

“When they crumbled my paper, it broke my heart because that was the stigma I was trying to break,” Dershem told USA TODAY.

After taking away his speech, the headmaster pointed to a prepared speech and told Dershem to read the speech and nothing else. But shortly afterwards his classmates started singing “Let him speak” and someone handed him another microphone.

At this point Dershem continued part of his speech from memory.

“Like I said … after coming out as a queer freshman, I felt so alone. I didn’t know who to turn to for support, guidance or a hug. Every day at school I smiled outwardly while “inwardly questioning how we should connect the various facets of our identities,” said Dershem, without taking his eyes off the crowd.

Dershem told his classmates and their families about his own mental health problems and the effects of COVID-19 on his own mental illness.

“If you’ve fought, or will fight, I believe you. And I hope you will believe others too. From a formerly suicidal, formerly anorexic, queer … one person’s life can save a life, ”he told his classmates.

Bryce Dershem and his father proudly carry his Pride flag upon graduation.  During the ceremony, Dershem was asked to remove his flag.

After the ceremony, Dershem said that several classmates and families thanked him for sharing his story. He specifically remembers one mother who said she wished her son were alive to hear Dershem’s speech.

Although Dershem couldn’t finish his speech during graduation, the Pride Alliance of Pittman, New Jersey invited him to speak during their Saturday morning event. This is new information and should be listed above.

“All I always wanted was people to feel welcome and outrageous. Although my school cut my speech short, it was great that the LGBTQ + community allowed me to do it, ”said Dershem.

In the days since Dershem’s graduation, he was featured on Good Morning America and praised by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy for his “resilience and courage” in “telling the truth to power.”

Meanwhile, Twitter users have urged the district to review Tull’s position as headmaster.

Padovani could not say whether there had been a conversation about Tull’s position since the day it began, or whether the backlash to the incident had taken place.

All student speeches are coordinated by Tull with other administrators, Cloutier said in a statement, noting that the “explicit focus is on the senior class as a whole” and their educational experiences with “inclusive messages about the future of all students in the class,” said the superintendent.

Student speakers had to have their speeches approved by Tull and the school administration.

“No student speaker was asked to remove their personal identity from a speech before or during graduation, or not to reveal their personal identity during graduation,” Cloutier said in a statement.

However, during pre-approval of his speech, Dershem said administrators told him his experiences with mental health and queerness were not “relatable” to the student body. Dershem also said an administrator told him to write a speech, not a “therapy session.”

Dershem – a queer-identifying, formerly suicidal student who graduated from his class of 450 students – focused on mental health, believing in yourself, and believing in others when they reveal they are having trouble.

Eastern Salutaorian Arianna Reischer, who described herself as a home-schooled vegan yearbook editor, focused on the development of her classmates from first year to college.

Cloutier noted that the plan to reopen his district’s pandemic had focused on mental health support. The Eastern Regional School Board voted in April to restore the Gay-Straight Alliance Network for the next school year, a group that ended in 2009, Cloutier said.

“The district is committed to the diversity and inclusion initiatives of the (New Jersey Department of Education,” according to Cloutier’s statement).

Carly Q. Romalino is from Gloucester County and has been reporting on South Jersey since 2008. She is a graduate of Rowan University and a six-time award winner from the New Jersey Press Association.

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