The Lead: Pine View class president told to be careful with graduation speech

Zander Moricz was told his experience as a gay student is 'not appropriate'
Published: May. 12, 2022 at 3:23 PM EDT
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SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) - The senior class president of Pine View School for the Gifted has been ordered not to speak about his experience as a gay student or criticize the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law during his graduation speech on May 22.

Zander Moricz says he was called to Principal Stephen Covert’s office and warned that any mention of the law that goes into effect in July -- or any reference to Moricz’s activist efforts on LGBTQ rights -- would result in his microphone being cut off.

“It was like a sledgehammer to the face,” Moricz told ABC7. “I could not comprehend it because it felt so backwards.”

Moricz said the principal told him such comments would be “polarizing and not school appropriate.” He said his face turned red. “I’m told that my human rights are controversial and therefore not appropriate for school setting. I’m the class president and my human rights are not appropriate for my speech at my school graduation.”

Moricz, who is heading to Harvard this fall to study government, has been actively involved in protests against the new law, titled the “Parental Rights in Education” bill.

The new law states: “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

The new law also affects how mental health services, such as students’ meetings with school counselors, are delivered. Parents would have to be notified of meetings in many cases, and parents would have the right to refuse to allow their children to fill out wellness surveys.

The new law would also make it easier for parents to sue the school district if they feel parental rights have been violated.

Critic say the law’s language is vague and could have far-reaching implications for students, potentially even those who have no connection to LGBTQ issues.

Defying school administrators’ warnings, Moricz organized a student walkout in March against the then-pending legislation. He also organized a similar protest in downtown Sarasota that attracted hundreds of people, including the mayor and county commissioners.

Moricz said when he was told he had to censor his graduation speech, it proved to be a moment of clarity. “That’s when it really set in for me. It was a perfect crystal clear image of the impact that this bill can have, will have, and is already having, because I know that this (Covert) isn’t the human being that I know.”

Moricz says he gave Covert his word that he would conform to the school’s wishes. “I cannot ruin something that hundreds of my friends have worked for for years,” he said. “I will not take away their moment simply because we have an administrator and a government that is telling us that those are the two choices.”

That being said, Moricz says he also will not compromise on his principles. “That is something that I will not compromise over anything at any point in time. I will simply find a way to have both. And I won’t have it any other way. So that’s just how it’s going to be.”

Covert has declined ABC7′s request for comment. The Sarasota County school district would not speak directly about the matter, but told ABC7 the district does not have written policy for commencement speakers.

The district did provide a statement saying all student speeches are reviewed in advance. “Students are reminded that a graduation should not be a platform for personal political statements, especially those likely to disrupt the ceremony. Should a student vary from this expectation during the graduation, it may be necessary to take appropriate action.

“The principal did meet with Zander Moricz to remind him of the ceremony expectations, but the content of the speech has not yet been reviewed.”

The school district also provided a one-sentence statement attributed to Principal Covert: “We honor and celebrate the incredible diversity in thought, belief, and background in our school, and champion the uniqueness of every single student on their personal and educational journey.”

Listen to the podcast:

The senior class president of Pine View School for the Gifted is already an accomplished activist for gay rights. He’s been told he can’t talk about during his speech at graduation. ABC7′s Jim DeLa sits down with Zander Moricz.

The compete text of the statement from Sarasota County Schools:

Each year, our elementary, middle, and high schools go over graduation/promotion ceremony expectations and guidelines for speeches, presentations, and performances with their graduates, so the students know what to expect during the event. Students participating in the graduation ceremony go through at least one rehearsal of the overall event, with a particular emphasis on the timing of performances and speeches. All material performed, spoken, or shown during the ceremony is reviewed and approved by school personnel and administration to be sure it is appropriate to the tone of the ceremony.

High School graduation ceremonies are a time-honored tradition that celebrate the many accomplishments of all graduates & their families, as well as the teachers, staff members, and school communities who contributed to each student’s educational journey. Class presidents, academic or athletic team captains, and outstanding community servants are just some of the many types of student leaders commonly chosen to speak at graduation ceremonies. It is a great privilege to be a graduation speaker – most students share their fond memories of school experiences, give shout-outs to special teachers & staff, and share inspirational messages to help celebrate all the seniors in the graduating class as they move onto college, work, and adulthood. Out of respect for all those attending the graduation, students are reminded that a graduation should not be a platform for personal political statements, especially those likely to disrupt the ceremony. Should a student vary from this expectation during the graduation, it may be necessary to take appropriate action.

With regard to Pine View School, we can confirm that the school’s administrators review students’ speeches annually for appropriateness and length prior to graduation in a manner that is consistent with existing law, including the First Amendment to our Constitution. As in years past, student speakers were reminded that graduation is a community celebration and were encouraged to tailor their remarks to be reflective of experiences & memories that all students could appreciate to best reflect all facets of the graduating class’s achievements. The principal did meet with Zander Moricz to remind him of the ceremony expectations, but the content of the speech has not yet been reviewed.

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