Bryce Dershem graduated from Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees and was delivering his speech to his fellow graduates and attendees when the school’s principal, Dr. Robert M. Tull, literally pulled the plug on Dershem’s speech and ordered him to read a different approved speech. But according to a report from WCAU and video posted to YouTube by his father, Dershem continued to deliver his speech from memory instead.
“After I came out as queer freshman year, I felt so alone. I didn’t know who to turn to,” Dershem said before a school official unplugged the microphone.
“Dr. Tull came up to the stage he grabbed the paper I brought and crumpled it in front of me,” Dershem told WCAU. “He pointed to the speech he had written for me, effectively, and told me I was to say that and nothing else.”
The superintendent of the Eastern Camden County Regional School District, Robert Cloutier, told WCAU via email that students must deliver only speeches approved in advance.
“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 said.
Dershem said he felt “censored” and that the school was “trying to regulate the message I was going to say and take away parts of my identity that I’m really proud of” when they demanded he remove all references to his sexuality or struggles with mental health. According to Dershem, faculty told him the valedictorian speech was not “his therapy session.”
School administrators also took issue with Dershem’s attire. He wanted to drape a rainbow Pride flag over his shoulders and gown while delivering the address. School faculty refused, so Dershem went ahead and wore the flag anyway. Judging from the response of those in attendance, many were in support of Dershem.
Video of the event posted by Dershem’s father showed students and guests loudly supporting the student after his microphone was temporarily silenced. Individual voices can be heard asking Dershem be allowed to continue. Rather than read from his prepared remarks in the binder after the microphone and original speech were taken from his hands, Dershem returned to his real valedictorian speech, which he recited from memory to the cheers of the crowd.
“As I was saying,” Dershem continued after a new microphone was handed to him, and before continuing on with the rest of his speech from memory to the approved applause and laughter from the crowd.
One of those supporting him in the crowd was his unnamed boyfriend, with whom he was seen holding hands.
Dershem said he wanted his speech to inspire others to not let the speed bumps of life turn into detours or roadblocks. Instead, he hoped his speech showed others how to proudly be themselves despite what others may say or do to stop them.
“Part of our identity, our year, our struggle is 2021,” Dershem said from the podium, undaunted in the face of those attempting to silence him. “We’re still here though. We adopted to something we never thought possible.”