VOORHEES TOWNSHIP, NJ – A promotion major from a New Jersey high school was briefly silenced during opening remarks about mental illness and his own experience as a teenager who identified with gay men and survived the high school.
Now the Voorhees School District wants a federal agency to look into whether it acted inappropriately by cutting Bryce Dershem’s microphone and allegedly crumpling the hard copy of his dias speech in front of 450 graduates and their families.
East Camden County School District Superintendent Robert Cloutier told the Courier Post, part of the USA TODAY Network, on Monday that he had asked School District Attorney Anthony Padovani “to contact a government agency appropriate 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 school district had discriminated against from Dershem.
“There is an act of discrimination which is now alleged against us,” said Padovani. “We can’t really investigate… let an independent see if we’ve done anything wrong. That’s right.”
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Padovani is collecting documents for the civil rights office, he said.
Padovani and Cloutier said the school district is ready to fully cooperate with the review.
When 18-year-old Dershem went to the microphone on June 17 with a shiny rainbow LGBTQ pride flag wrapped around his red graduation gown, he had already been negotiating with high school administrators over what he could say in his speech, Dershem said in the US TODAY.
“I was excited to tell my story; I was nervous,” Dershem said. “Nervous because I knew some of the school administrators didn’t want me to tell my story, but I couldn’t stay true to myself.”
In the June 17 opening video posted to the Eastern Regional High School website, Dershem opens the ceremony with some pretty traditional remarks, thanking friends and family for believing in every graduate sitting on the pitch.
Then he recounted his version of the Eastern Regional High School experience.
“After I came out as queer, I felt so lonely,” he said, as director Robert Tull, in a black robe and cap, steps into the frame behind him and stands. leans behind the scene.
The microphone cuts out slowly, the rest of the sentence mutating into silence.
“I didn’t know who to turn to,” were the last words he said before the microphone went completely silent.
Realizing that the microphone was off, the crowd applauded him.
Tull walks up to the lectern, pulls the microphone out of its holder, holds it over his head, says something to Dershem, then leaves the stage with the hard copy of Dershem’s speech in hand.
Earlier in the school year, Dershem requested inpatient and outpatient treatment for anorexia, which he said he planned to mention in his speech. He hoped to open up to his classmates about his experience and encourage others to seek mental health treatment if needed.
“When they crumbled my paper it broke my heart because that was exactly the stigma I was trying to break,” Dershem told USA TODAY.
After removing his speech, the principal pointed to a pre-written speech and told Dershem that he had to read the speech and nothing else. However, soon after, his classmates started chanting “let him talk” and someone handed him another microphone.
It was then that Dershem continued part of his speech from memory.
“Like I said …. After I finished my first homosexual year, I felt so lonely. I didn’t know where to turn for support, advice, a hug. Every day at school, I was smiling outwardly while wondering inwardly how we were supposed to link the different facets of our identities, ”said Dershem, not taking his eyes off the crowd.
Dershem spoke to his classmates and their families about his own mental health issues and the impact of COVID-19 on his own mental illness.
“If you have struggled, or are going to wrestle, I believe you,” he told his classmates. “And I hope you will believe the others too. From a former suicidal, formerly anorexic, homosexual … a person’s life can save a life.”
After the ceremony, Dershem said several classmates and their families thanked him for sharing his story. He particularly remembers a mother who said she wished her son was alive to hear Dershem’s speech.
Although Dershem was unable to finish his speech at the graduation ceremony, the Pride Alliance of Pittman, New Jersey, invited him to speak at their event on Saturday morning.
“All I’ve ever wanted is for people to feel welcome and unashamed,” Dershem said. “So even though my school cut my speech short, the fact that the LGBTQ + community let me do it was amazing.”
In the days following the revelation of Dershem’s graduation day ordeal, he was featured on “Good Morning America” and was praised by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy for his ” resilience and courage “to” speak the truth to power “.
Meanwhile, Twitter users called on the district to review Tull’s position as manager.
Padovani did not want to say whether conversations related to Tull’s position had taken place from the start, or about the aftermath of the incident.
All student speeches are coordinated by Tull with other administrators, Cloutier said in a statement, noting that “the focus is on the graduating class as a whole” and linking their educational experiences to “inclusive messages on the future of all students in the class, “said the commissioner.
Student lecturers had to have their speeches approved by Tull and the school administration.
“No student lecturer has been asked to remove their personal identity from all speech before or during graduation or have ceased to share their personal identity during graduation,” Cloutier said in a statement.
However, Dershem said that during the pre-editing of his speech, administrators told him that his experience with mental health and homosexuality would not be “reportable” to the student body. Dershem also said an administrator told him he had to write a speech, not a “therapy session”.
Dershem – a student who identified with homosexuals, formerly suicidal and a graduate of his class of 450 students – focused on the mental health, self-confidence and belief of others when they reveal they are struggling .
Eastern Salvatorian Arianna Reischer, who described herself as a former homeschooled vegan yearbook writer, focused on growing her classmates from grade one to early.
Cloutier noted that his district’s pandemic reopening plan focused on supporting mental health wellness. The Eastern Regional School Board voted in April to re-establish the Gay-Straight Alliance network next year. The group ended in 2009, Cloutier said.
“The district is committed to the diversity and inclusion initiatives of the (New Jersey Department of Education,” the Cloutier statement said.
Carly Q. Romalino is originally from Gloucester County and has been covering southern Jersey since 2008. She is a Rowan University graduate and six-time New Jersey Press Association award winner.