BY SAMUELE PETRUCCELLI AND ROBERT PELAEZ
The graduation speech of a Wheatley High School senior that included a reference to challenges faced by Palestinians as “ethnic cleansing” was, according to a lawyer for the student, met by racist remarks shouted by some attendees and, in at least one case, physical threats.
The student, Huda Ayaz, and her lawyer also claim that school administrators have falsely stated in emails to parents that the controversial portion of Ayaz’s remarks were not included in a version she sent to them.
Ayaz’s lawyer, Ahmed M. Mohamed, said Wheatley School principal Sean Feeney confirmed the receipt of a final copy of the student’s remarks and has admitted fault in private.
“Speak for those who don’t have a voice, and stand up for any injustice that you see,” Ayaz said in her speech at the school’s graduation Sunday afternoon. “Educate yourself about international dilemmas, including the ethnic cleansings of Palestinians and Uighur Muslims. Families are continuously torn apart, and real human lives are being lost but ignored.”
After giving the speech to her fellow students and parents, Ayaz was booed and told to “go back to Pakistan,” by a parent, Mohamed said in a phone interview with Blank Slate Media and a press release.
Another male adult parent became aggressive at the ceremony, yelling and making gestures, causing him to be removed from the campus by a police detective, Mohamed said.
“Immediately after the ceremony was over, two or three men came up to me to tell me my speech was ‘b*llshit’ and ‘a piece of crap’,” Ayaz said in a letter to the community following her graduation. “They were extremely aggressive and security had to hold them back.”
Feeney said in an email that a portion of Ayaz’s speech was not approved and apologized for its content to the ceremony’s attendants.
“I apologize that such a wonderful ceremony became marred for many people in attendance due to those remarks,” Feeney wrote. “As an institution of learning, we will take what happened today and strive to make further sure our students understand the lessons we seek to teach above regarding time, place, openness and appropriateness.”
Ayaz said in a letter to the community that the speech was not meant to be a surprise, and she presumed Feeney had read it prior to the ceremony.
Both Ayaz and Mohamed also said Feeney confirmed receipt of the final speech via email the day before.
After sending a link to the final version of her speech “[Feeney] said thank you Huda see you tomorrow,” Mohamed said. “Did he read it? We have no idea. That’s up to him to explain.”
Ayaz recounted the same in her letter.
“The version I sent to Dr. Feeney Saturday morning included the changes and was the version I read at the graduation,” Ayaz wrote. “When he responded to my email of the final draft that afternoon, I assumed he had read it and approved of it.”
Elaine Kanas, superintendent of the Wheatley School district, supported Feeney’s position that Ayaz’s comments were not approved. Kanas sent an email following up on Feeney’s.
“There was a very upsetting moment during the graduation ceremony when a student speaker inappropriately inserted political speech into a graduation address,” Kanas wrote. “Dr. Feeney and I have been in conversation today regarding the necessary steps that must be taken to prevent such an upsetting occurrence ever happening again.”
But both Mohamed and Ayaz claim Feeney spoke privately to her, apologizing and accepting fault for not reviewing her remarks prior. Mohamed stated there was another witness who heard the apology as well.
“[Feeney] actually walked up to [Ayaz],” Mohamed said. “And then stated, ‘the blame is all on me’ … and then [Feeney] stated that he didn’t read the speech carefully enough.”
Mohamed called the administrator’s position shameful and disturbing and said Ayaz felt obligated to write a follow-up letter to the community due to the reaction she received from her speech.
“The school just abdicated their role in protecting the student,” Mohamed said. “They threw this child, 17-years-old, under the bus, and in essence said, ‘We’re not going to protect you. We’re going to look out for ourselves, you’re out on your own.”
The lawyer said Ayaz decided after the response her remarks not to attend the senior prom, which was held Thursday night.