Evan Young was the valedictorian of the Twin Peaks Charter School in Longmont, Colorado. He graduated this Spring and was scheduled to give the valedictorian speech at commencement, befitting his status as holding the top academic rank in his class. However, in a move that proved to be somewhat controversial, the school notified him right before the speech that he would not be allowed to do so thanks to the content of what he had planned to say. Namely, he was going to come out as gay publicly during the speech.
Gay rights activists, including U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, jumped on the case, citing it as a form of censorship and discrimination against Young. The St. Vrain School Board, eager to avoid a long term controversy, opted to hire an outside attorney, William Bethke, to investigate and to cover their backsides. As it turns out, the attorney found that the decision to pull his speech was not, in fact, discriminatory. His report, released publicly on July 26, says that Young’s speech did violate standards, but that the school’s leadership handled the situation poorly.
Under school policy, students are allowed to hold any views and engage in any lifestyle so long as it is not disruptive to the rest of the student body. Since Young had planned to use the public forum to make a personal announcement that many may find offensive, as well as some “inappropriate and potentially insulting humor,” it was deemed to be in violation of those standards.
While it is a sad commentary that there are still people in this country today who would find a young man announcing his identity controversial, the fact is that he was doing so in a manner that was somewhat inappropriate. The speech he was scheduled to give should focus on academics and education related items, not his personal life. By choosing to out himself in a public forum he was taking an honor, albeit one he had certainly earned, and using it for his own personal announcement.
In fact, that is what is at the root of the issue. Young wasn’t so much upset that the speech was pulled, according to the documents released, but that the principal had outed him to his parents before he could do so himself. Principal BJ Buchmann, who has since resigned over the controversy, spoke with Young about cancelling the speech and explained the reasoning behind it. What was apparently not explained, or not well-enough explained, was that he would be contacting Young’s parents to inform them of the decision. Buchmann has said that he believed it was clear this was to happen, though Young disagrees and states that he never gave permission to do so.
Bethke called the confusion that had stemmed from the conversation “genuine and, with the benefit of hindsight, understandable,” blaming both sides for what appears to be a simple miscommunication. He said that it appears Young was somewhat evasive when questioned by Buchmann, perhaps intentionally so, but that Buchmann may have lost the trust of Young in the first place, which may have given root to any evasiveness the principal perceived. Bethke also notes that it does not appear that there was any malice in the decision; it was a simple one based on the rules of the school. As for the timing, well, it seems Young didn’t turn in his draft by the initial deadline and, therefore, the gap between the cancellation and the big day were much shorter than they would have otherwise been.
Young did deliver his original speech, however, though not in the academic setting. He was given the stage during the Out Boulder gay rights event, which is arguably a much more suitable setting for this type of announcement, if a little anticlimactic thanks to the setting being a potential spoiler.
The St. Vrain School Board will be reviewing the findings within the next month to see what can be done to avoid future confusion and controversy. You can review it right here.