Eighteen-year-old Bryce Dershem, who graduated from Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees, told CBS News he originally wrote a speech about being queer and dealing with mental health issues, but Principal Robert Tull told him to change it.
Dershem said he spent months in treatment for anorexia and didn’t even know if he’d be able to graduate, let alone become valedictorian. “As soon as I heard that [I was valedictorian], I knew I really wanted to talk about my story and ending the silence on mental health struggles. And really giving queer people a voice too and letting people know no matter who you are, you’re not alone,” he said.
Two days before graduation, Tull emailed Dershem, telling him if he didn’t submit a new speech, he wouldn’t be able to speak at graduation. The next day, Dershem went to the principal’s office to speak with him and other administrators.
“He told me that my graduation speech was not my therapy session,” Dershem said, adding that the principal’s words were hurtful.
Dershem revised the speech with the head of the English department but Tull told him it still wasn’t fit for graduation.
“They told me to take out all of the references of me being queer, they told me to take out all of the personal details of me going to treatment,” said Dershem. “They didn’t want me to say that I was queer, because they said it would exclude people in the audience.”
Dershem revised his speech yet again.
In a statement to CBS News, Eastern Camden County Regional School District Superintendent Robert S. Cloutier said for graduation “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.”
When it came to graduation day, Dershem decided he was not going to read the approved speech at the podium.
He walked up to the podium with a copy of the unapproved speech he had written and began to read it. But about one minute into the speech, Tull walked up to the podium and took the microphone and Dershem’s paper.
A video of the speech that Dershem’s dad, Michael, posted on YouTube shows that the microphone was replaced and Dershem was left with the approved speech in the binder at the podium.
“[Tull] pointed at the speech that he basically wrote for me and said I was to read that or nothing else,” Dershem said. “That hurt me and at this point, I was almost at the point of tears because I had worked so hard on this speech for months, talking to so many teachers and family members and friends, trying to make it this message that I just want everyone to be loved.”
“To crumble the speech I worked so hard for … it broke my heart,” he said. “They all tried to pass it off as a mic change, as if they planned to do this all along if I decided to say my original speech.”
Instead of reading the approved speech left at the podium, Dershem tried to recite his other speech from memory. He said he received a standing ovation, and after the ceremony a teacher who lost her son to mental health issues during the pandemic commended him.
“She hugged me and cried into my arms and told me she was so happy I had given the speech and that she hopes other people believe in it too. She wished her son had heard those words,” he said. “All along I thought if I could just make one person feel less alone, that was everything for me… It warmed me to my core.”
In his statement to CBS News, the superintendent said: “No student speaker was asked to remove their personal identity from any speech before or during graduation or stopped from sharing their personal identity during graduation.”
“All student speeches for graduation are coordinated through the high school principal,” he said. “The principal, working with additional staff as needed, supports students in connecting their educational experiences to a meaningful and inclusive message about the future for all students in the class and for the students’ invited guests.”
The superintendent said the valedictorian’s speech “related his personal journey during his high school years to the importance of mental health.”
Dershem said the principal also had a problem with the Pride flag he wore at graduation.
“I decided on graduation day to wear a Pride flag and as soon as I got to graduation, I was told by an administrator that the principal wanted me to take it off because supposedly it wasn’t uniform,” he said. Dershem said aside from needing to wear clothes underneath your graduation gown, there is no real dress code for graduation, adding that many people wear colorful clothing or decorate their graduation caps.
“In telling me to take it off, it just felt like I was being put in a place I was a few years ago and that feeling that I should hide my identity and that I shouldn’t be openly queer because of the social stigma of it all,” he said. Dershem decided in that moment to keep the Pride flag on because taking it off “would be going against how hard I work to be proud of my identity.”
Dershem said when he walked up to give his speech, the principal told him again to take the flag off.
In an email to CBS News, the superintendent said students were permitted to wear stoles and decorate their caps, including Pride colors. He said he has asked the district solicitor to contact an appropriate government agency to conduct an independent review into Dershem’s allegations.
The graduate will be attending Tufts University for college. He said no one at the school has reached out to him about the speech following graduation day.
CBS News followed up with the superintendent and principal about Dershem’s allegations regarding the speech revision, graduation day and Pride flag and is awaiting response.