Making a statement with graduation

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Hundreds of students throughout the Columbia Basin are graduating high school this month. From Coulee City to Mattawa, seniors are marking the occasion with graduation ceremonies, receptions and, of course, graduation speeches.

A notable speech came last weekend from Othello High School valedictorian Andrew Chen who courageously addressed the topic of fear and its power to paralyze and inspire. Chen wrapped up his approved speech, the speech previewed by administration that had gone through four drafts, and started another speech.

“This is where I go into dangerous territory because this is where I address the very fear that inspired me to write this speech,” Chen told the audience.

He called the community “close-knit” and said they think in the same way.

“The people who don’t are scared to speak up because they’re in the minority,” Chen said. “When they do speak up, they...”

At that point, Othello High School Principal Alejandro Vergara asked Chen to step down and he did.

Across the nation, school districts are coming under fire for allegedly censoring students at the graduation podium. In this case, Othello superintendent Chris Hurst reached out to the Columbia Basin Herald and clarified that Chen was not censored. There was a discussion about Chen remembering his audience and focusing and tailoring his speech toward those in attendance, Hurst said. The Herald spoke with Chen today to hear his side of the story. Already, Chen has contested some information coming from the district and wrote on the Herald’s website that it wasn’t true that he didn’t want to speak with reporters. We are looking forward to hearing more information from Chen.

Was Chen censored? It would appear that Chen’s speech was vetted for appropriateness, as is standard practice for graduation speeches.

Do school district officials have a responsibility to guide students all the way until graduation? Absolutely.

Graduation speeches, like Emmy speeches, have the potential to veer off into other topics best tackled during another time. We don’t have copies of Chen’s drafts to determine who was right or wrong. We expect to learn more after visiting with Chen.

We agree Chen and the district showed conviction in their decisions. Chen’s life experience was shaped by his community and he wished to share more. The district had concerns about audience appropriateness and reined Chen in. We can see how both sides were right.

A graduation speech has the potential to be awe-inspiring and uplifting. The district helped guide Chen and it’s likely much of his speech was inspiring for those who face fear. Chen’s words will be remembered for years to come.

— Editorial Board

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