The valedictorian of a New Jersey high school said administrators tried to censor his graduation speech on mental health and his LGBTQ identity.
But to the cheers of his classmates at Eastern Regional High School, Bryce Dershem continued with his speech — even after the principal took away his prepared remarks.
“After I came out as queer freshman year, I felt so alone. I didn’t know who to turn to for…” Dershem said June 17 before his microphone cut off.
The principal, Dr. Robert Tull Jr., approached Dershem from the back of the platform. He removed the microphone and a piece of paper from the podium while exchanging a brief word with the teenager, video shows.
Dershem was given a second microphone by another person about 15 seconds later. The valedictorian told WCAU administrators made it look like it was an audio issue, but says that was not the case.
Tull instructed Dershem to recite the speech that had been “essentially written” for him by administrators, Dershem told the Philadelphia Inquirer. That speech did not include references to his sexuality and mental health issues, he told the Inquirer.
“At this point I’m about to cry,” Dershem said, according to the Inquirer.
Dershem said he refused to comply with the principal’s request.
“As I was saying…” Dershem said in his speech, continuing on with his prepared remarks off memory.
He touched on topics including his bout with anorexia and suicidal thoughts after coming out as gay. The speech received a standing ovation from his peers.
“You are not alone in your fight. With the belief of those around you, you never have to suffer in silence,” Dershem said in the nearly 7-minute long speech. “If you have struggled or will struggle, I believe you and I hope you will believe others too.”
The superintendent of the Eastern Camden County Regional School District, Robert Clautier, said in a statement to NBC News that speeches by students are pre-approved and students are guided by the principal through the writing process.
“No student was asked to remove their personal identity from any speech before or during graduation,” Clautier said in the statement to NBC News.
Dershem will attend Tufts University, where he will study French literature and women’s gender and sexuality studies, according to The Sun Newspapers.
He said the school also asked him to remove a gay pride flag he had draped over his graduation gown. according to WCAU. Video of his speech shows Dershem wearing the flag.
“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,” Dershem told the TV station.
Eastern Regional High School is located in Voorhees, about 20 miles southeast of Philadelphia.