Wheatley grad’s speech met with backlash from administrators, parents

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Religious leaders, activists and parents have thoughts on the next steps for Wheatley after the commencement address of a student led to a spike in tension within the community. (Photo by Samuele Petruccelli)
Religious leaders, activists and parents have thoughts on the next steps for Wheatley after the commencement address of a student led to a spike in tension within the community. (Photo by Samuele Petruccelli)

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.

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“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.”

Email records show Wheatley School principal Feeney responding to Ayaz after she sent the final version of her graduation address one day prior. (Photo courtesy of CAIR-NY press release)

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.

34 COMMENTS

  1. Everyone has right to free speech, including to students. This was a happy occasion related to education, not a political one. Such remarks were not really meant for a graduation ceremony. Secondly, for Muslims Freedom of Speech is only a one sided right. Tell me which Muslim country has democracy and freedom of speech? What about Palestinians “drive Jews in to the ocean”?

  2. “Everyone has a right to free speech” yet somehow you come off as wanting to limit hers because it doesn’t align with your worldview. This girl nor her family cannot speak for “which Muslim country has democracy” but I’m sure they are here to benefit from ours and pay taxes for her to go to school in that district for that reason. Stop deflecting. Muslims are not a monolith and it’s the height of ignorance to ask a girl and her family to speak for countries and policies abroad. She’s mentioning an issue important to her and maybe we don’t agree with her opinion. You’re basically saying it shouldn’t be important to her b/c it doesn’t fit the narrative you subscribe to. That mob mentality was on display with the parents who verbally assaulted her and then probably emailed the school district frantically because they didn’t agree with her views. If you claim to stand for freedom of speech, stand for it, and with no conditions.

  3. So Matt, you say ‘everyone has right to free speech’ but you seem to be against the right to this speech? So to you: ‘everyone has right to free speech’ so long as the speech supports the side you’re on?

  4. Matt, please stop with the bigotry and deflection. This young lady simply encouraged her audience to educate themselves about these issues. And, the principal had approved her speech, but was too much a weaselly coward to accept responsibility. Instead, he betrayed her, and exposed her and her family to further harassment.

      • Why does everyone think when people speak of Palestinian ethnic cleansing it’s anti Semitic? Please educate yourself and actually have a conversation with a Palestinian.

    • no, this lady used her speech to inject political opinion. She changed it at the last minute. Actions have consequences.

  5. As a Muslim myself I understand the parents being upset at politics being brought up at a graduation, but it’s definitely the schools fault for approving the speech. The student was clearly unaware that speaking out on behalf of those that cannot would not be taken well by all parents.
    The previous commenter who decided to bring religion into this needs to educate himself. Palestinians are Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. Many christians in Palestine are also oppressed by the state. The media doesn’t discuss that or else the majority of Americans would be furious and riots would begin.

    • That is absurd
      There are no Palestinian Jews and the few Christians left in pajestinian controlled cities live in daily life threatening fear , especially if there any left in Gaza . In Gaza gay men and woman are persecuted daily !

        • no palestinians bomb israel with rockets. Just last month, 4000 rockets were lanuched from Faza at Israeli towns, cities, and villages.

      • Palestinians represent an ethnic peoples, and are technically Semitic peoples. They are humans. They are not 100% Muslim and many are from jewish tribes that conveyed to Islam thousand years ago. The “persecution” that you claim is heavily playing on islamophobia – and you insinuate that because of this, Palestinians are rightfully oppressed. What else are we to interpret from your claim? Many Palestinians are secular. But that shouldn’t matter. In the end every human has the right to freedom, no matter religion. Palestinians do not have freedom and live under military occupation, police brutality, open air prisons, forced to move through checkpoints like cattle to get across town, and are forcefully removed from their homes for demolishment by the Israeli government, whether that be in Gaza, West Bank, or Israel. Many Palestinians live in Israel. They do not have equal rights. They are being ethnically cleansed to make way for more Jewish settlers traveling from other countries claiming their ancestors who lived their thousands of years ago give them the right to force Palestinians from their homes, leaving thousands homeless. How is this fair? Huda has the right to express the fact that Palestinians are being ethnically cleansed. There is too much evidence to deny it. This fact is recognized by pretty much the rest of the world except the US.

        • That is indigenous Jewish land for over 4,000 years so the so called Palestinian had never had a currency, An actual country etc etc, they have no history whatsoever other than being a nomadic tribe. The Muslim hijab wearing leftist democrat Marxist communist has a lawyer? Of course, what a piece of work of woke mumbo jumbo, go back to whatever Muslim country you want, ungrateful American terrorist you are

  6. Thanks Samuele for reporting this. This isn’t political, it’s human and I am incredibly proud to see such humanity and empathy in a 17 year old girl.

    To Huda and the upcoming generation- Continue being unapologetic and stand up for human rights!!!

  7. @Matt
    Does free speech include cursing and physically threatening a teenage girl at her own graduation because of her political beliefs? Does anyone deserve that? Or only Muslims? If an Israeli made an anti Palestinian comment would you have accepted that person being abused & threatened by Muslms? You wouldnt would you
    Think about your own biases and prejudice.
    Her calls to educate yourself before speaking clearly apply to you since your quote about driving Jews into the ocean is all you seem to think about the Palestinian position, and it’s a weak argument since their are radicals in every community. You refuse to acknowledge the vast historical claim they own to their land and injustices they suffered under the Israeli occupation and genocide for decades. How come you don’t condemn the behaviour of those nasty kids and parents who abused her because of her beliefs? People like you @Matt, ARE the problem.

    • May people are fed up with the lies and demonization of Israel, their is no genocide of Palestinians in fact the Palestinian population has quadrupled in Israel, quite the opposite of genocide. If people really cared about the Palestinians they would start with criticizing their corrupt billionaire leadership and stop with the lies against Israel. Unfortunately pro Palestinian really means anti Israel and anti-Semitism most of the time. Very sad.

  8. Let me get this straight. A student spews anti Semitic lies about “ethnic cleansing “ ruining a graduation ceremony for hundreds of people & she’s a “victim”? Um ok

    • EXACTLY what part of the speech is “anti-Semitic”? If you are truly an intelligent person, you can pinpoint the exact text from the speech which is available on YouTube and share the “anti-Semitic” text.

      (Spoiler-there is nothing that says anything against Judaism. Saying Uighur Muslim and Palestinian lives matter does not conflate to anti-semitism)

  9. Shame on the school and those who claim to be educators that don’t have an open enough mind to understand the language behind this speech. She said nothing wrong…she merely said to keep an open mind and think about examples of people being oppressed.

    Open your mind, people!!!

  10. ethnic cleansing is a horrible slur and a lie, which we have seen leading to violence
    its not just inappropriate its dangerous
    it should not be allowed to spread, anywhere
    its not “legit criticism”. it is a pathway for attacks on jews and that’s wrong
    no one should feel unsafe in their community – especially at such an occasion!

  11. Free speech does not include the right to perpetuate vicious lies. It also does not prohibit people from objecting and reacting to those lies. There is no ethnic cleansing or genocide in Israel. Just people defending themselves from terrorists.

    • Child please. Unlawful killing, excessive use of force, raids, torture, unfair trials, displacement, use of banned weapons all by Israel. How would you react if this was happening to you Kaye?

  12. Outsider here:

    Whoever is angry, you have the right to be angry. Be angry that your mentality will (hopefully) only be around for another 50-60 years before y’all pass away. Only then, most of y’all who grew up in hateful, uneducated, ignorant, and most profoundly, close-minded households will have no influence over others.

    I mean really, have those who got offended ever travelled to anywhere other than good ol’ clean Sweden or Italy? No. Have you ever known someone of Syrian or Palestinian descent/background? No. Have you even met a U.S soldier who has spent time with (not Syrians) but Afghanis, Pakistanis? No. Have you ever met a translator for the U.S Military? No. We see videos (closest empirical evidence you can get other than physical presence) of Israeli Defense Forces pushing old women, shooting children in the head, blowing up a building where a baby, or two, or three, or twenty get crushed, and the parents have to clean their bodies of blood and bury them, if they’re even alive.

    Before you go an tell a 17 year old to go back to their country. Maybe, she can’t because she doesn’t have one. Maybe she would but the only reason she’s staying here is to be educated to go back and help her people. Maybe, you ought to open up your eyes to what the world is experiencing rather than work a 9-5, be in debt, grow a beer addiction, be obese and get diabetes, and die from CVD. Grow up, like this girl. Be useful, like this girl. Be kind, be productive. Don’t spew hate and expect peace, otherwise you’re just as delusional as terrorists.

  13. That young lady should go to Gaza and see what real human rights violations look like !
    She is obviously quite ignorant or political reality and truth. Obviously Wheatley Heights is weak is teaching truth and fostering intones of Anti Semitism

  14. Thank you Samuele for covering this and your well-written pieces.

    Many have assigned intentions to this speech, saying she meant to be political. We don’t know that. Caring about conflict abroad is something everyone in these comments demonstrates in different ways.

    Our care shouldn’t manifest into screaming at a family they should go back to where they’re from, “what about Hamas” as seen in a video on Twitter, and harassment toward people because their views on this matter. Equally, if ethnic cleansing is deemed antisemitic, we can respectfully condemn and correct. That is not done through passive anonymous posts.

    What saddens me more is the inability to treat neighbors with basic dignity. These aren’t terrorists because they don’t agree with our POV, but taxpayers in our town who we live with. Are there organizations on LI willing to discuss these issues so we don’t repeat the vicious Jewish-Muslim tension we inherit and are too lazy to fix? That challenge for civility won’t happen with people who accuse, but those able to dialogue.

    A school as a place of learning should uphold its mission to teach. Even in instances like this, we all should be educated.

  15. The school clearly failed to protect its brightest student because of her religion. Her whole speech is about not being afraid of speaking the truth. The principal clearly failed to do his job and have the courtesy to even read and approve her speech and to hide his own failure blamed it on the student and turned it into an issue larger than it should have been. This has nothing to do with religion or what she said but everything to do with a principal that probably makes over $300k a year and fails to do his job and than distracts everyone with a political issue.

  16. My friend’s daughter graduated with this girl and as per my friend, the speech has to be approved by a committee. The mistake I see is the miscommunication between the principal and student. He assumed edit as grammatical correction and she assumed he read it. Perhaps he granting permission was his 2nd mistake.
    At the end the whole thing is a lesson for these young minds on how fire spreads when not extinguished at the right time.The matter should have been resolved by an apology from the principal. Both parties have taken arms( hired lawyers). What amazes me is the sheer arrogance of the student to have done this last min change and taken the easy way out. She is an extremely smart girl and is not new to content writing so she is not naive.Who makes a political statement during a graduation ceremony? That is not a platform . To top it off she makes this public. What lesson is this student being taught from people supporting her wrong, what lesson do the children of the parents who verbally abused her during the speech are being taught? I am not a parent but coming in neutral and with a different perspective.

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