University High valedictorian barred from giving speech; Orange schools later apologize

University High valedictorian barred from giving speech; Orange schools later apologize

Originally published by LA Times

University High School's valedictorian was prevented by administrators from delivering her commencement speech at Tuesday's graduation, an action the Orange County school superintendent later apologized for, writing that she was "deeply saddened" by the "unfortunate mistakes" that kept the student from speaking.

After her commencement, Kriya Naidu, the top-ranked student at the east Orange school, stood in her bedroom and made a video of herself delivering the speech she could not give in front of her classmates. She then posted that on YouTube and on Twitter, where thousands have since viewed it, giving her speech far more exposure than if she had delivered it at graduation as planned.

But the 18-year-old -- who plans to major in computer science when she begins classes at the University of Central Florida in the fall -- said she was still disappointed she could not speak at graduation as valedictorians traditionally do.

"I was really upset at first," she said. "I worked so hard on it."

The three-minute speech focused mostly on Naidu's parents' experiences as immigrants from South Africa, touching on the challenges they and other immigrants face as newcomers to the country.

"Every time they were knocked down, they got back up," she said. The speech also quoted a well-known line from the musical Hamilton: "Immigrants, we get the job done."

An administrator called her mother a few hours before the 2 p.m. ceremony to say her daughter would not be allowed to deliver her speech because she did not record it ahead of time as requested.

The school district, in an email, said Thursday that "immigration was never a topic of concern in the student's speech."

At the UCF arena, where the graduation was held, Naidu said she asked the principal in person if she could speak, promising to stick to her printed-out speech that had been reviewed previously, with a few jokes removed at administrators' request, she said.

But the principal would not allow it, she said, and did not call Naidu on stage first to receive her diploma, as she expected as the senior with the highest grade-point average.

Naidu said she did not record her speech because that request was made late Thursday, and Friday morning she had to take an Advanced Placement calculus exam and then head to her part-time job at a tutoring center. University's graduation was Tuesday, just after the long Memorial Day weekend.

She said she didn't know if her message was what got her speech banned, but, if so, was puzzled by that. "I didn't say anything inflammatory."

Superintendent Barbara Jenkins on Thursday sent an email to Naidu's mother saying she was "deeply saddened" by what happened and would educate staff and review procedures "for improvements."

Jenkins added, "I apologize to your daughter and family for the unfortunate mistakes made. ... I again commend your daughter for her outstanding accomplishments, and congratulate her parents as well."

Naidu was in University's rigorous, college-preparatory International Baccalaureate program and also took nine AP classes. She's been admitted to the UCF's Burnett Honors College.

"I appreciate the apology," she said, "but I don't want this to happen to any valedictorian."

Her graduation left her angry and upset and disappointed for family members who'd joined her at the arena to celebrate her achievements.

After the ceremony, she drove to McDonald's with a sister, then feeling calmer returned home and recorded her video, wearing her black cap and gown, lots of cords and medals, and standing in front of a wall covered with ribbons she'd won in horse shows.

The video quickly got lots of views, some from those who'd been at University's graduation and were puzzled why the valedictorian's speech -- listed in the program -- was skipped over.

"I was very confused at the graduation when you weren't given your speech and I'm glad I got to hear it today. You're going to do big things!!" wrote one person on her YouTube post.

Some questioned whether it was the immigrant theme and others said it created a poor image for the school.

"I really hope this young woman wasn't told her solidarity speech with immigrant families living the American dream was 'too political' for graduation," wrote another.

"As a proud UHS grad I am disappointed you were not allowed to speak," wrote Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando. "You are an incredible example for Cougars everywhere!"

A district spokesman said the University High principal was not available for an interview.

In her email, Jenkins invited Naidu to deliver her speech at an upcoming Orange County School Board meeting and to "have it professionally recorded and posted to the district's website and shared on social media platforms."

Naidu said she'd already decided she would attend a school board meeting to discuss what happened, so she likely would take the superintendent up on her offer.

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