Five days after a Wheatley School graduate delivered an address referencing the violence between Israelis and Palestinians as an ethnic cleansing, the principal of the school said he did not read the final speech prior to the ceremony.
“I was not informed that the speech had been edited by the student after it had been selected and approved by the Wheatley Speech Selection Committee,” Wheatley School principal Sean Feeney wrote in a statement released Thursday. “As such, while I did read the approved speech, I did not read the final speech before it was presented during the Wheatley School graduation on Sunday, June 20th.”
Feeney’s comments seemed to retract some of the onus placed on graduate, Huda Ayaz, in a Sunday email he sent to the community following the strong reactions, some with racist intentions, caused by her speech.
“Unfortunately, one of the student speakers diverted from the remarks that had been originally approved by the Graduation Speech Committee who made the selections, presenting personal views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Feeney said in the email. “I apologize that such a wonderful ceremony became marred for many people in attendance due to those remarks.”
Ayaz’s speech was met by at least one racist remark with an attendee shouting, “Go back to Pakistan,” according to Ayaz’s lawyer and legal director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Ahmed M. Mohamed. Another male adult had to be escorted away by police after becoming aggressive and making gestures.
Student speakers at Wheatley’s graduation ceremony were required to submit their speeches to the Graduation Speech Committee. Upon approval, students could make edits and send them back.
Ayaz did so and received an email response back from Feeney within seven hours.
“I think he’s trying to rely on a technicality,” Mohamed said. “For the school to say that it wasn’t approved, that she edited without permission, that she snuck something in, that’s absolutely false. It’s misleading and it just creates a target on her back.”
Feeney had accepted fault and admitted to not reading the speech carefully enough in private after the graduation on Sunday, according to Mohamed. Yesterday, the public relations firm representing the East Williston School District released a statement on behalf of Feeney.
In his statement, Feeney acknowledged that the revised version of the speech was sent to the school, but said he was not made aware an updated version had been submitted.
But screenshots of an email from Ayaz provided by her lawyer shows Feeney thanking her for sending what Ayaz had referred to as the “final version of my speech” the day before the graduation ceremony.
The statement did not reference the racist remarks allegedly yelled by an adult, though it did discuss the appropriateness of Ayaz’s address.
“A high school graduation ceremony, solely intended to acknowledge and celebrate the milestone achievements of the graduating class, was not the appropriate venue to express any political statements,” Feeney said. “As adults who are role models for our children, it is equally important that our actions toward others, including those with whom we disagree and especially the youngest members of our community, must always be respectful and reflect the beliefs that are the hallmark of our schools and our community.”
Responding to Feeney’s statement, Mohamed called it a reminder of civil decorum that overlooked the anti-immigrant actions, arguing a contrast between the school’s response to Ayaz’s speech and the attendees’ reaction.
“You would think that if an adult tells a student to ‘go back to Pakistan,’ that would be a pretty easy situation for the school district to step in and say, ‘that’s not appropriate, we don’t allow that, we condemn it in the strongest harshest terms possible,” Mohamed said. “It’s really unfortunate to see that there’s a heavy hand when it comes to students, a minor, and this isn’t even a slap on the wrist for the adults.”
Meanwhile, 15 comments posted on Blank Slate Media’s original story have been submitted, some in support of Ayaz, some calling her speech anti-Semitic, and others blaming the school’s lack of oversight.
Ayaz and her family remain concerned for their safety, according to Mohamed. Precautions have been taken, and Ayaz did not attend her senior prom held Wednesday.
But the psychological trauma is still concerning for Ayaz, who, in a letter to the community, said her anxiety had skyrocketed in the 24 hours following the ceremony.
“Telling someone to ‘go back to Pakistan,’ makes them feel like they’re other,” Mohamed said. “They other-ized her in essence, told her that she didn’t belong there.”
Ayaz’s parents have also been troubled by the school’s response and share their middle child’s anxiety.
“The father is seeing his daughter being slandered by a school that he expected to protect her,” Mohamed said. “The parents are seeing a school district that is not even acknowledging the harm that was done to their daughter.”