A New Jersey high school valedictorian said he was censored while delivering his speech at graduation, calling the interruption a direct attack on his sexuality and victory over mental health challenges.
Bryce Dershem graduated from Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees, New Jersey on June 17. His microphone was cut off during his speech, which touched on his personal experiences with coming out, mental illness and disordered eating.
"After I came out as queer freshman year, I felt so alone. I didn't know who to turn to," Dershem said before his microphone was cut off.
The school principal walked up to the podium to take Dershem's microphone and his written copy of the speech, according to video of the graduation.
"The principal, Dr. Tull, came up to the stage and he grabbed the paper that I brought and crumpled it in front of me in his hand," Dershem said. "And then he pointed to the speech he had written for me, effectively, and told me I was to say that and nothing else."
After he was given a new microphone, Dershem picked up right where he left off, reciting his speech from memory to cheers from the audience.
Robert Cloutier, Eastern Camden County Regional School District superintendent, wrote in an email to NBC10 that graduation speeches are expected to connect the speaker's educational experiences to an inclusive message about the future of all students in the graduating class and their guests.
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“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,” Cloutier wrote.
During the speech editing process, Dershem said administrators made him take out all mentions of his queerness and going to treatment. Administrators even told him that graduation was not "his therapy session," he said.
"I did feel censored," Dershem said. "I felt as though they were trying to regulate the message I was going to say and take away the parts of my identity that I’m really proud of."
When his original speech was rejected, Dershem decided to go off the book at graduation.
He said that while the interruption was made to appear like a technical issue, there were no technical issues with other presenters during the afternoon. Cloutier's statement did not explain what happened to the microphone.
Dershem said the school also had an issue with his graduation attire, asking him to remove a gay pride flag draped over his graduation gown, although he didn't comply.
Cloutier's statement said the district has focused on social and emotional wellness, including providing clinical support for the mental health challenges of students, parents, and staff during the pandemic. That support will continue in the 2021-2022 school year, he said.
Dershem said there was overwhelming support for his speech from his classmates, family and boyfriend who cheered him on during the speech and congratulated him afterwards.
He said he sees the interruption as a speed bump, but not a detour, on his journey to inspire other to be unapologetically themselves.
"Part of our identity, our year, our struggle is 2021," Dershem said in his speech. "We're still here though. We adopted to something we never thought possible."