A School’s First Black Valedictorian Wasn’t Allowed to Speak. The Mayor Gave Him a Microphone.
Jaisaan Lovett stands before two marble columns, ready to deliver his graduation speech more than a week after his graduation.
He is wearing a crisp mortarboard, a blue robe and a yellow sash reading “Valedictorian” — a groundbreaking distinction: Lovett was the first black student to leave University Preparatory Charter School for Young Men as the top academic performer since the school’s founding in 2010.
But Lovett did not give his speech anywhere near the UPrep campus in Rochester, N.Y. — not in the gym, not in Founder’s Hall, not in the shade of trees that frame the modest campus five miles from where Frederick Douglass is entombed.
His school decided — under mysterious circumstances that it yet has to explain — that he could not deliver his address, and the June 22 graduation came and went without its valedictorian’s remarks.
But Lovett knew someone: Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren (D), in whose office the teen has interned for two years.
And so Warren offered City Hall as an alternative to the graduation stage, then used social media to amplify his remarks.
“Unfortunately, Jaisaan’s school did not allow him to give his valedictorian speech,” the mayor said in a video circulated on the city’s YouTube, Facebook and Twitter accounts. “For some reason, his school — in a country where freedom of speech is a constitutional right, and the city of Frederick Douglass — turned his moment of triumph into a time of sorrow and pain.”
She turned over the lectern to Lovett, who thanked his parents, siblings and favorite teachers.
Then, he launched broadsides against the school and its president, Joseph Munno.
“To Mr. Munno, my principal, there’s a whole lot of things I’ve wanted to say to you for a long time,” the valedictorian said in the video published July 2. “ … I’m here as the UPrep 2018 valedictorian to tell you that you couldn’t break me. And I’m still here, and I’m still here strong.”
Munno said there is “another side of the story” but otherwise declined to comment to The Washington Post on Thursday, citing privacy concerns. He previously said the decision to keep Lovett from speaking was made by the school, WIVB reported.
Warren told The Post that Lovett’s parents and the student were not given a reason for the school’s decision. Lovett could not be reached for comment.
Whatever the reason, Lovett became the latest member of a growing class of distinguished students whose graduation speeches have been silenced or blunted by school administrators.
In June, a graduating senior’s microphone was cut off in Northern California when the student veered from prepared remarks to discuss sexual assault. In May, a valedictorian in Kentucky was barred from his speech because it was “confrontational,” so he addressed his class with a megaphone.
And last year, in Pennsylvania, a student criticizing the “authoritative” nature of the administration had his microphone cut off — elements that made the video go viral.
Lovett told the Democrat and Chronicle that he had had numerous run-ins with Munno in his six years at the preparatory school, which teaches boys in grades seven through 12. Lovett said he led a five-day student strike after the school declined to buy laboratory safety equipment.
“There’s a lot of wrong things that go on at that school, and when I notice it I speak out against it,” he told the newspaper.
Lovett said Munno denied his request to give a speech.
“He didn’t want to see the speech or what it said — nothing,” Lovett told the paper. “He just said no.”
Munno told The Post that the school’s board of trustees is meeting Thursday to discuss the issue. In a statement posted to Facebook, the board said it would review school guidelines and policies and that its calls to the mayor’s office were not returned.
The board also congratulated Lovett as the first black valedictorian in the school’s “four year graduation history.”
Lovett will attend Clark Atlanta University on a full scholarship.
But he will always miss not having had the chance to address his fellow students. His City Hall speech was delivered to an audience made up mostly of government employees.
“This is a moment he will never get back; it’s a moment his mother will never get back,” said Warren, the mayor.
Lovett is bright and diligent, she said, and did what was expected of him. He studied. He earned good grades.
“Still, it was not good enough,” she said.
In his post-graduation graduation speech, Lovett addressed Munno and said he was moving on.
“And after all these years, all this anger I’ve had toward you and UPrep as a whole, I realized I had to let that go in order to better myself,” he said in the video. “And I forgive you for everything I held against you.”