Vale­dic­to­rian’s #MeToo mo­ment is si­lenced

In Cal­i­for­nia, as a top stu­dent starts to talk about sex­ual mis­con­duct in her speech, her mic is cut

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY ELI ROSENBERG eli.rosenberg@wash­post.com

Lu­la­bel Seitz had done every­thing right, at least on pa­per. As a high school se­nior with a GPA over 4.0, the 17-year-old had been ac­cepted to Stan­ford Univer­sity. The first in her fam­ily to grad­u­ate from high school, she was named vale­dic­to­rian at Pe­taluma High School in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, an honor that gave her the op­por­tu­nity to give a com­mence­ment speech.

But about four min­utes into it at the school’s grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony June 2, the mi­cro­phone she was speak­ing into was dis­con­nected.

Seitz had ar­rived at a part of her speech that touched on sex­ual as­sault al­le­ga­tions at the school, with­out nam­ing any­one in par­tic­u­lar, ac­cord­ing to a video she later up­loaded to YouTube. But school ad­min­is­tra­tors had cut her off at the mo­ment she de­vi­ated from a script that she had sub­mit­ted, the Santa Rosa Press Demo­crat re­ported.

David Stir­rat, the prin­ci­pal of the pub­lic high school, told The Wash­ing­ton Post by email that stu­dents had sub­mit­ted their speeches for ap­proval, then prac­ticed with a panel. They had been warned that if they went off script, the mi­cro­phone could be cut off, he said.

Seitz had spent the first four min­utes of her speech de­scrib­ing some of the chal­lenges that both she and the stu­dent body at large had over­come to make it to grad­u­a­tion. She said that she was the grand­daugh­ter of im­mi­grants from the Philip­pines and the child of two par­ents who left high school early and did not go to col­lege.

“I didn’t think I’d be stand­ing here as your vale­dic­to­rian,” she said. “But the rea­son I share this story with you is not be­cause I think it’s unique. In fact quite the op­po­site. We have all achieved un­likely dreams.”

She noted that the school had weath­ered a teach­ers’ strike and clo­sures dur­ing the fires that raged last fall in Sonoma County, which she said had claimed some stu­dents’ homes.

But it was her next sen­tence that school ad­min­is­tra­tors de­cided to si­lence. She be­gan it by say­ing that “the Class of 2018 has demon­strated time and time again that we may be a new gen­er­a­tion, but we are not too young to speak up, to dream and to cre­ate change. Which is why even when some peo­ple on this cam­pus, those same peo­ple — ”

The mic cut off. The video shows the awk­ward si­lence that en­sued on the field. After a few sec­onds, a few stu­dents in the au­di­ence stood and clapped, with some be­gin­ning to chant “Let her speak!” At one point, Seitz ap­pears to con­tinue to speak to the au­di­ence, with­out the mic, be­fore re­turn­ing to her seat among her class­mates.

Ac­cord­ing to the ver­sion of the speech that she read later and posted to YouTube, Seitz planned to say: “And even learn­ing on a cam­pus in which some peo­ple de­fend per­pe­tra­tors of sex­ual as­sault and si­lence their vic­tims, we didn’t let that drag us down. The Class of 2018 has demon­strated time and time again that we may be a new gen­er­a­tion but we are not too young to speak up, to dream, and to cre­ate change.”

“The Pe­taluma High School ad­min­is­tra­tion in­fringed on my free­dom of speech and pre­vented a whole grad­u­at­ing class from hav- ing their message de­liv­ered,” she wrote on YouTube. “For weeks, they have threat­ened me against ‘speak­ing against them’ in my speech. Some­times we know what’s right and have to do it.”

The Press Demo­crat re­ported that Seitz was frus­trated by what she claimed was a lack of ac­tion from the ad­min­is­tra­tion on a claim of sex­ual mis­con­duct.

Stir­rat said the stu­dents were wel­come to in­clude po­ten­tially con­tro­ver­sial ma­te­rial in their speeches.

“In Lu­la­bel’s case, her ap­proved speech didn’t in­clude any ref­er­ence to an as­sault,” he said. “We cer­tainly would have con­sid­ered such an ad­di­tion, pro­vided no in­di­vid­u­als were named or de­famed.”

Seitz told The Post that she never planned to name any­one — and that it should have been clear to ad­min­is­tra­tors from the tone of her speech.

“Just based on the pat­terns of where my speech was go­ing — I was just say­ing some peo­ple, it was very vague. So they had no rea­son to think I was go­ing to call out some­body in par­tic­u­lar,” she said. “I just think they got scared be­cause I was go­ing to call out them.”

Dave Rose, an as­sis­tant su­per­in­ten­dent, told the Press Demo­crat that he could re­mem­ber only one other time that ad­min­is­tra­tors had dis­con­nected a mi­cro­phone dur­ing a stu­dent’s grad­u­a­tion speech in the past seven years, but he said he thought it was le­gal.

“If the school is pro­vid­ing the fo­rum, then the school has the abil­ity to have some con­trol over the message,” Rose said.

Pub­lic school stu­dents have strong First Amend­ment pro­tec­tions. But school ad­min­is­tra­tors oc­ca­sion­ally cross what schol­ars have called le­gal lines, in­clud­ing some who threat­ened stu­dents plan­ning to par­take in anti-gun protests with dis­ci­pline in the wake of the Park­land school shoot­ing.

Seitz com­pleted three years of col­lege class­work at two nearby schools while in high school and was in­volved in stu­dent govern­ment, the Press Demo­crat re­ported. Ac­cord­ing to a Google Plus pro­file, she was a trum­pet soloist in the school’s jazz band and a school trea­surer.

ERIK CAS­TRO/THE PRESS DEMO­CRAT

Lu­la­bel Seitz ar­gues with Pe­taluma High School Prin­ci­pal David Stir­rat on June 2 in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia after her mi­cro­phone was shut off by school of­fi­cials dur­ing her vale­dic­to­rian speech.

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