Eastern investigates controversy surrounding graduation speech

School requests that state civil rights agency also have input

EMILY LIU/The Sun: Eastern Regional High School continues to investigate the events leading up to graduation that resulted in the interruption of valedictorian Bryce Dershem’s speech.

In the aftermath of Eastern Regional High School’s graduation, when valedictorian Bryce Dershem continued reciting his speech after the mic was cut by Principal Robert Tull, the teen was met with overwhelming support, from classmates who cheered him on and chanted “Let him speak!” during the ceremony, to Gov. Phil Murphy, who tweeted that he was “proud of [Dershem] for speaking truth to power, and for your resilience and courage.”

The events leading up to graduation are being investigated by the law firm of Eastern’s   solicitor, Sahli & Padovani, as well as by the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, at the request of the district. Though Tull has been unavailable for comment, Superintendent Robert Cloutier said the school would work with public relations firm EFK Group to speak for the district.

“I’ve been asked, ‘Was district policy followed?’ To our knowledge, there is not a specific policy for graduation ceremonies,” Cloutier said  He referenced policy 5880, which reads, “Public performances of pupil organizations must be approved in advance by the building principal.”

“And it certainly has been past practice for all graduation ceremony coordination and conduct to be overseen through Dr. Tull. [He] is the conductor of the graduation ceremony,” Cloutier noted.

Tull has overseen Eastern graduations for 15 years, working with students to approve their speeches. Not including 2020’s virtual graduation, this year’s ceremony was the first one Cloutier attended as superintendent, and his role was to oversee communications with invited guests.

In an email sent to parents on July 14, Cloutier cited the school’s efforts to support the LGBTQ community in the past year. He specifically noted a lengthy discussion with Dershem in March about how to best to accomplish that, about resuming the GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) in the new school year and about plans for professional development for faculty and staff on best meeting the needs of LGBTQ students.

The superintendent also pointed out that Tull had approved a yearbook picture of Dershem wearing a T-shirt that read, “We need more queer books. I am gay,” to show that “in no way has the school community tried to silence anyone for voicing their sexual identity or censored the word queer.”

The letter also noted that there had been “a derogatory term that would have been offensive to most of the audience, including members of the LGBTQ community” removed from an earlier version of the speech and that administration was concerned that the offensive term would be used. The email confirmed that Dershem did not use the offensive term.

As The Sun previously reported, Dershem believed Tull intentionally cut the mic when the valedictorian strayed from a previously approved speech that omitted references to his queer identity and other personal struggles. In the livestream, Tull takes the unapproved speech and grabs the mic, before it is replaced by the sound engineer, Joe Werner. Cloutier denied Eastern administrators were aware of a potential speech controversy, but it was later reported that Dershem had anticipated he might be censored as a result of speaking from the heart.

According to WHYY Philadelphia, Dershem had a friend reach out to classmates and ask them to chant, “Let him speak, ” if his speech was censored. Werner told the Courier Post in July that he was more than once instructed by Tull to prepare to cut the microphone at the principal’s signal, and that “Tull had stationed the vice principal next to Werner’s assistant at the soundboard, specifically to prepare for Dershem’s comments.”

Following Werner’s account, the school administration updated its response to the controversy by saying its own investigation had not found evidence of the engineer’s allegations and it could therefore not comment. But EFK Group released this statement  on behalf of the school: “Prior to graduation day, the emails from the student speakers to the principal, submitting their final drafts of the speech were positive … We believed that the version being rehearsed would be the same as the one used at graduation.”

As to whether or not it was normal procedure to have a vice principal sit in the sound booth, EFK added: “School officials have to be prepared with appropriate supervision to conduct public ceremonies and all school activities.”

When the investigation of the controversy is completed by the law firm and the civil rights agency, the results will be submitted to the Eastern Regional board of education.