Twin Peaks Charter Academy blocked senior and valedictorian Evan Young from giving his graduation speech because he refused to remove his gay identity from the script. The decision has triggered a debate about the role that schools – particularly charter schools – can play in limiting students’ freedom of expression.
The debate reached national news when local LGBTQ-rights group Out Boulder gave Young the opportunity to deliver his speech at a separate event last Sunday. There, Young was honored with a congressional award from nearby district’s Democratic congressman Jared Polis as well as a legislative award from the area’s state Democratic representative Jonathan Singer.
Polis, who is gay, started a fleet of charter schools and chaired the state’s Board of Education before being elected to congress. The story of Evan Young hit Polis close to home.
Last night the Congressman issued a letter to the Twin Peaks Charter Academy board saying the school had violated Young’s rights and demanding an internal investigation. He wrote:
“[T]he recent action regarding removing the speaking role and customary academic acknowledgment of Evan Young based on his sexual orientation risks placing Twin Peaks out of compliance with its charter and could be grounds for the termination of your charter,” Polis added.
“I suggest that Twin Peaks immediately launch an internal investigation, which will hopefully show that the action of removing a graduation speaker at an official event on the basis of his sexual orientation was not in fact school policy, and that the proper disciplinary steps have been taken regarding the people involved…”
According to the school, the decision to ax Young’s speech was not about his sexual orientation but about his resistance to making other changes to the speech as well. In a letter late last night, school board president Kathy DeMatteo defended the school’s decision by asserting that Young behaved badly, echoing what principal BJ Buchmann allegedly summarized to curious peers as Young’s “bad character.”
“Mr. Young added insult to injury on the night of the ceremony when he ripped the sleeves off his graduation gown and attempted to wear it as a cape,” wrote DeMatteo. “Then Mr. Young’s father also informed Mr. Buchmann just prior to the ceremony that Mr. Young intended to sing some sort of song at the podium as part of his speech.”
Because Principal Buchmann “had no idea what Mr. Young intended to do or say at the ceremony,” DeMatteo argues they had a perfect right to censor his speech.
“If a heterosexual student refused to abide by the speech screening rules and appeared poised to make a mockery of the graduation ceremony, he too would be precluded from delivering his speech,” she wrote.
You can read the full transcript of the speech Young delivered at the Out Boulder event here. DeMatteo asserts that this is not the exact speech Young proposed to give at graduation. Either way, it does have some of the hallmarks of DeMatteo’s and the school’s stated concerns. In addition to coming out in the speech, Young also pokes fun at everything from how Hillary Clinton makes her money to the concept of homework — which he admits to having avoided whenever possible.
DeMatteo concluded that the school is already conducting an internal investigation, the results of which will be made available in July.
But after reading DeMatteo’s letter, Polis decided to withdraw his request for an internal investigation.
“[T]he content of your letter seems to definitively indicate that your minds are made up regarding this matter,” he wrote. “As such, it appears that there is little use in moving forward with your ‘internal investigation’ if it is designed by your own attorney to exculpate Twin Peaks in this matter.”
Polis added that he will now ask the district school board and superintendent, Dr. Don Haddad, to conduct or seek a third-party investigation.
“Unfortunately Twin Peaks has undermined the legitimacy of their internal investigation by predetermining their findings and throwing Evan under the bus,” wrote Polis. “At this point the only way to restore credibility is for a truly independent investigation to occur. Rather than play this out in the court of public opinion, both Evan and the school deserve the benefit of the doubt and the vindication that only an objective investigation can establish.”
The district school board, the superintendent and Twin Peaks Academy Charter may tussle over jurisdiction because of the school’s charter-school status.
Debbie Lammers is a board member for the Saint Vrain Valley School District. While she attended the Out Boulder event and said she was personally dismayed by Twin Peak’s decision not to let Young speak, Lammers emphasized that the district board has not discussed the issue nor decided what action it may take.
Lammers added that charter schools operate much more independently from the school board than traditional public schools. Consistent with the local-control impulse behind charters, Lammers said, districts oversee charter schools’ finances and academic accountability but have little say in personnel and policy.
“As far as I can tell there isn’t anything directly that we the school board are able to do right now in terms of Twin Peaks and its administration,” said Lammers. “I think that if the parents are so inclined there would have to be a parent-involvement in any repercussions. It would have to come form the school parents themselves.”
The next meeting of the district school board is on June 10th.
Image of Evan Young via Democracy Now!