In spite of numerous attempts by English teachers at the school to edit Dershem’s speech to satisfy the principal, the teen said he believed it was critical to tell others who were struggling that they weren’t alone.
“It felt like they were trying to get me to say, ‘I am here today in front of you because I worked so hard in high school to get good grades,’” said Dershem.
The approved version of the speech also omitted all references to his sexual orientation and to specific psychiatric issues.
As soon as he uttered the first sentence about being queer at the June 17 ceremony, Dershem said Tull cut off his microphone, crumpled up the written speech in front of the teen, and told him “that I was to read the speech he’d written or nothing else.” Then, the teen was handed another microphone, making it appear to the audience that technical difficulties had caused the interruption.
Dershem was ready. He’d memorized his version of the seven-minute speech, and he and his best friend, Eastern senior Ria Ravel, 18, had reached out to classmates through social media before graduation day and asked them to chant “Let him speak!” should someone try to censor him.
“When I woke up around 6 a.m. the morning of graduation,” said Ravel, “I saw that the number of people who were willing to cheer for Bryce had gone from just us to 40 or 50 people … It filled us with so much joy.”
After delivering his original speech, Dershem received a tearful hug from a teacher whose child had died by suicide during the pandemic. In the wake of the media blitz that followed — including stories in The New York Times and The Washington Post and an appearance on “Good Morning, America” — Dershem said he also received messages of support from all over the world.
Tull did not respond to requests for comment; Eastern Camden County Regional School Superintendent Robert Cloutier said the district solicitor is conducting “a very thorough investigation” that involves “tracing the full history of every version of the speech.”
‘Missing an opportunity’
According to American Civil Liberties Union attorney Alex Shalom, schools have “broad authority” to regulate student commencement speeches.
“You might be legally allowed to,” said Shalom, “but this isn’t the way to run a school. And here was a golden opportunity to let a star student shine for the ways in which he enriches the school environment.”
Former Camden High School principal Alex Jones said while it is “definitely typical” for an administrator to review those speeches, he thinks Tull may have violated anti-bullying policies. The New Jersey Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, passed in 2011, requires that a superintendent of schools report to the board of education “all acts of violence, vandalism, and harassment, intimidation, or bullying” occurring in school settings.
“I really allow kids to say what they want to say. It’s their moment, it’s for them,” said Jones, now a senior managing director at Teach for America. “I think this principal is missing an opportunity to lift him up and have this person be an example of what LGBTQ students can achieve in high school. Not only can you make it through a challenging environment being different, but you can excel and be a valedictorian, and that’s a powerful message to send to other students.”
The consensus among area educators is that it’s adults, not teens, who are more likely to be uncomfortable with issues of gender identity and sexual preference today.
“Coming out as gay today with this group of kids isn’t even interesting,” said Rich Colton, who teaches social studies at Eastern. “It’s like finding out somebody’s left-handed; they’re so understanding of each other.”
But he is conflicted about how the school handled his speech.
“It’s so easy here to side with Bryce because he’s a great kid on the right side of history,” Colton said, “but they were trying to control the message, in the same way they’ve controlled the message delivered by every student speaker we’ve ever had at graduation, and I don’t know whether that’s right or wrong, as much as I love the First Amendment.”
Colton said that apart from the graduation incident, he believed Dershem had received a great deal of support at Eastern, from being voted prom king to becoming valedictorian, even after spending six months undergoing in-patient treatment for anorexia during the school year.
Other schools in South Jersey are making efforts to better educate teachers. Ellen Williams-Lindsey, a crisis counselor at the Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy magnet school in Camden, started a student group called GLOW — which stands for Gay, Lesbian Or Whatever — because she herself is gay and was fielding questions from faculty she thought were no-brainers.
Williams-Lindsey said it can be especially difficult for LGBTQ teens in a mostly Black and Latino city like Camden.
“In the Black community, being gay is taboo,” she said. Williams-Lindsey said when teachers advise their students to tell their parents how they identify, she tells the educators, “Unless you’re going to take them in if they get kicked out, you better mind your business.”
At Tufts University where Dershem will enroll this fall, Hope Denese Freeman still sees students who “haven’t come out because their parents pay for their college and they are afraid if they do, their parents won’t support them anymore.” The director of the college’s LGBT Center said she has students from conservative states like Mississippi and Alabama “who are proud to be out when they’re at school, but when they’re back home, things look very different.”
Freeman said when the college had to send students home during the coronavirus pandemic, it was particularly stressful for those students. Some told her it wasn’t safe for them to go home, and others, she said, told her, “I can’t go back home and stifle myself anymore.’”
Freeman, who was impressed with Dershem’s family support, said, “We have incredible students at Tufts dedicated to activism and I’m sure Bryce will thrive here.”