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MIDDLETOWN — Middletown High School South’s senior class presidents have their diplomas. Now they’d just like an apology after, they say, they were unfairly labeled bullies.
New Middletown South graduates Eric Dominach and Mike Sebastiano, both 18, say they were denied their diplomas after delivering a graduation speech that included a snarky comment or two about the district. The students say administrators informed them after the fact that the speech, which also mentioned students by name, might have violated anti-bullying guidelines. The teens’ diplomas were withheld.
District officials say they were looking out for the interests of people who had been mentioned in the speech; but the teens believe officials were just miffed the district had been the target of some of the ribbing. Meanwhile, individual-rights advocates say the incident raises a familiar question about whether anti-bullying policies in the state infringe on freedom of speech.
"This will be one instance, unfortunately, of many to come," says Will Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy at the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Creeley didn’t comment specifically on the Middletown case. But he said the broad nature of New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, signed into law in 2011, has paved the way for schools and districts to use their policies to silence critics.
"We will see again and again administrators using the bullying rationale to silence student speech they simply don’t like, whether or not it meets the Legislature’s definition of bullying," Creeley said.
Middletown Superintendent William George said only that a version of the speech had been agreed upon and approved, and the students did not deliver that version.
"There were students and staff mentioned and portrayed in a less than positive light, or a negative light," George said. "That warranted an investigation to make sure nobody was victimized."
Dominach and Sebastiano say Principal Patrick Rinella asked them before graduation to delete parts of the speech, including a reference to the school’s "50 other vice principals” — a joke about the school having multiple vice principals. The seniors also were asked to delete a gibe about the difficulty they had trying to get into the National Honor Society, despite stellar grades.
But the teens restored those and other comments at the last minute and kept in jokes about classmates they say the district had never attempted to censor. The speech also included a comment about a fellow student who taught them how to fight and another who "never shut up." That student, they say, had been voted "Most Talkative" in school-sanctioned class elections.
When Dominach and Sebastiano went to the high school to pick up their diplomas June 18 with the rest of their classmates, they were told the documents would be withheld. The next day the families were told all students and staff named would be interviewed to determine whether they felt bullied, and whether charges might be filed, the families said, though no one had filed a complaint.
"Our speech didn’t justify that outcome. We knew our speech didn’t offend anyone," Sebastiano said. "We thought it was unfair."
"I was very surprised," said Eric Dominach, an honor student who will major in engineering at Rutgers University in fall. "We wanted the speech to leave a memorable mark on our four years and just bring enjoyment to all the students who graduated. … (District officials) just didn’t want it to be funny, I guess, or for us to state obvious facts about our school and the things we had to go through."
The district held the diplomas until June 20, just before a Board of Education meeting at which parents and students had been planning to protest.
"We’ve asked for an apology," Patti Dominach said. "They held the power. They held the diplomas. They embarrassed the boys and didn’t let them pick up their diplomas with their peers, and embarrassed them again by calling their peers (about whether they felt bullied).
"If anybody was bullied, it was us," Patti Dominach said. "It looked to me like (district officials) were trying to punish them for deviating from their speech."
George said the district had not received a direct request from the teens for an apology and did not comment further on the families’ specific claims.
Creeley said he believes the Dominaches did the right thing by bringing attention to what they believe was an attempt at censorship so that, if unwarranted, it’s less likely to happen again.
"The right way to do it is to raise a hue and cry about it … and make sure that everybody is watching," Creeley said.