The queer valedictorian of a New Jersey high school said his graduation speech was cut short by a school administrator who did not want the top student to talk about his LGBTQ identity or mental health struggles.
Bryce Dershem shared his story with NBC Philadelphia and said he felt “censored” by an administrator’s efforts to halt his speech.
In a video of the remarks that Dersham’s father uploaded to YouTube, the principal, dressed in black academic regalia, can be seen stepping behind Dershem at the podium before his microphone is suddenly silenced.
The principal then steps beside the podium and grabs Dershem’s paper.
The principal “crumpled” the paper then “pointed to the speech he had written for me effectively and told me that I was to say that and nothing else,” Dershem told NBC Philadelphia.
Shortly after the administrator tried to force Dershem to read pre-approved remarks, another figure came up to him and hands him a replacement microphone.
Instead of picking up from the school approved speech, Dershem picks up from where he left off — from memory — to cheers from the crowd.
“Believe in yourself, class of 2021,” Dershem said as he finished the speech. “Each and every one of you is enough. Each and every one of you can and will change this world.”
In an interview with NBC News on Thursday, Dershem said he hoped his speech would help “to make people feel less alone.”
“For the longest time, I never believed I was enough,” Dershem said. “If I had heard someone say these words when I was younger, it might have helped me.”
School administrators told NBC News that students are guided by the principal through the speech writing process and all speeches are approved beforehand.
“Every year, 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,” Robert Clautier, superintendent of the Eastern Camden County Regional School District, said in a statement.
Dershem explained that during the staff writing process, he was told the speech was not his “therapy session” and all mentions of queerness and mental health struggles were removed.
In his statement, Clautier said, “No student was asked to remove their personal identity from any speech before or during graduation.”
Tim Fitzsimons is a reporter for NBC News. he/him