Queer valedictorian LGBTQ identity silenced speech may be subject to a state civil rights review

VOORHEES TOWNSHIP, N.J. – A New Jersey high school valedictorian was silenced briefly during commencement remarks about mental illness and his own experience as a queer-identifying teen surviving high school.

Now, the Voorhees school district wants a federal agency to review whether it acted improperly in muting Bryce Dershem’s microphone and allegedly crumpling the paper copy of his speech on the dias before 450 graduates and their families.

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

Padovani said he’s filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in Cherry Hill, requesting the agency investigate whether the school district discriminated against Dershem.

“There is an act of discrimination that is now being alleged against us,” Padovani said.  “We can’t really conduct our investigation … let an independent see if we did anything wrong. That’s fair.”

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

Padovani and Cloutier said the school district is prepared to fully cooperate with the review.

When Dershem, 18, stepped to the microphone on June 17 with a bright rainbow LGBTQ Pride flag wrapped around his red graduation gown,  he had already been through rounds of negotiations with high school administrators on what he could say in his speech, Dershem told USA TODAY.

“I was excited to tell my story; I was nervous,” Dershem said. “Nervous because I knew part of the school administrators didn’t want me to tell my story, but I couldn’t not stay true to myself.”

In the June 17 commencement video posted to the Eastern Regional High School website, Dershem opens the ceremony with remarks that are traditional enough, thanking friends and family for believing in every graduate seated on the field.

Then, he eased into telling his version of the Eastern Regional High School experience.

“After I came out as queer, I felt so alone,” he said, as Principal Robert Tull, in a black robe and cap, walks into the frame behind him and leans down behind the stage.

The mic slowly cuts out, with the rest of the sentence trailing off into silence.

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

Realizing the mic was off, the crowd broke into applause for him.

After taking away his speech, the principal pointed to a prewritten speech and told Dershem he was to read off of the speech and nothing else. However, soon after, his classmates began to chant ‘let him speak’ and a person handed him another microphone.

This is when Dershem continued part of his speech from memory.

“As I was saying …. After I came out as queer freshman year, I felt so alone. I didn’t know who to turn to for support, for guidance, for a hug. Every day at school, I outwardly smiled while inwardly questioning how we were supposed to link the different facets off of our identities,” Dershem said, not taking his eyes off the crowd.

Dershem told his classmates and their families of his own mental health difficulties, and the impact of COVID-19 on his own mental illness.

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

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