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Administrators at Eastern Camden County Regional High School were on alert for valedictorian Bryce Dershem's commencement speech because of a potentially offensive term he had included in a draft of the speech reviewed by staff.
Dershem said he felt censored by school officials when they cut his microphone at the June 17 ceremony as he went off-script and started talking about coming out as gay during his freshman year.
Principal Robert Tull came to the podium and appeared to point at a binder, which contained the text of all the speeches. After a tech replaced the microphone, he continued with his speech from memory.
Dershem told NBC Philadelphia that Tull crumpled his script and pointed to the approved speech in a binder.
In an update on the investigation, which is being conducted by the New Jersey Office of Civil Rights, schools Superintendent Robert S. Cloutier said that district policy requires the principal to approve all public performances by students and student organizations.
"We have the responsibility of presenting a community-friendly program for all students, parents and family members," Cloutier said this week.
Dershem in an earlier version of the speech included "a derogatory term that would have been offensive to most of the audience, including members of the LGBTQ community," according to the superintendent. In subsequent versions of the speech submitted by Dershem, the term was dropped. When administrators realized at the commencement he was not delivering the approved speech the microphone was cut off.
"After turning the mic back on, we decided in the moment to allow the valedictorian to complete the version of the speech in spite of the administration’s concern that the derogatory term that was in a previous version of the address may be used. The valedictorian did not use the offensive term," Cloutier said.
Joe Werner, whose company was hired to handle sound for the ceremony, told the Cherry Hill Courier Post that Tull told him twice to be ready to cut the microphone and seated a vice principal next to the sound board “just in case.”
The superintendent said Tull was unfairly accused of crumpling up the script, pointing out that the district attorney now has the same print-out of the speech.
Cloutier said the investigation is not yet complete.
Contact reporter Dan Alexander at [email protected] or via Twitter @DanAlexanderNJ
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