Petaluma High School valedictorian ‘appalled’ after mic cut off during her graduation speech
It was the moment Lulabel Seitz spent four years working to achieve. The Petaluma High School senior became the first in her family to graduate Saturday, and as valedictorian she used her commencement speech as a platform to underscore the value of perseverance to fellow seniors - that is, until her mic was disconnected.
The microphone cut off four minutes into her speech after she deviated from the script she previously submitted.
Clad in a white graduation gown with a colorful lei draped around her neck, she stepped around the podium to finish her speech as some students cheered and chanted “let her speak.”
Seitz, 17, posted a roughly nine-minute video on YouTube, documenting her graduation speech and a separate delivery of the “uncensored version,” which included a reference to a campus “in which some people defend perpetrators of sexual assault and silence their victims.” The video has been viewed more than 900 times.
In the days following the graduation of 304 students, the event has proved polarizing. Top school administrators said all student speakers were made aware their microphones would be cut if they deviated from the speeches they submitted. Seitz, who’s headed to Stanford University this fall to study applied mathematics and economics, voiced outrage by what she called censorship.
“When they cut my mic, I was appalled at them,” Seitz said.
She said she was sexually assaulted on campus by a person she knew and she wanted to air her frustration over what she viewed as a lack of action taken by the administration.
“I thought this is a public school with freedom of speech,” she said this week in a phone interview. “This is for my class that stood up and said ‘let her speak.’ Even if the administration doesn’t give me a mic, I still want to speak.”
Students were required to audition for their speeches, and during two meetings with Seitz, Assistant Principal Deborah Richardson said she told the teen that “the expectation is that the speech you submitted is the speech you will give.”
Petaluma High School Principal David Stirrat said the school prior to graduation received an undisclosed number of emails expressing concern Seitz might go off script.
A student and a teacher reported that Seitz was planning to deliver a speech different than what she submitted, Richardson said in an email.
In her speech to students, Seitz also addressed tension with teachers and the administration over labor contracts, and the October fires’ impact on the school community.
Seitz told her peers it seemed unlikely that she would be valedictorian. Her grandparents immigrated from the Philippines and neither of her parents graduated from high school, but later obtained their GED, she said in an interview.
“The reason I share this story with you is not because I think it’s unique, in fact, quite the opposite - we’ve all had unlikely dreams and overcome obstacles to achieve them, because adversity isn’t the rare monumental idea we made it out to be in our freshman-year English essays,” she told students. “No, it’s something very common and something we’ve all experienced throughout high school.”
Seitz said her GPA is between 4.6 and 4.7 and she completed three years of college while enrolled at Petaluma High School by taking classes at Foothill College and Santa Rosa Junior College. She was involved in student government and school band for her entire high school career, and participated in the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education’s Student Spaceflight Experiments Program.
Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Dave Rose could only recall one other incident in the past seven years when a student speaker’s mic was turned off, but he said it’s within the school’s legal authority. The school has to take into account the rights of both speakers and the people they may be speaking about, he said.
Rose cited a 1998 case where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a Missouri high school principal didn’t violate a student’s right to free speech by removing articles from the school paper. The court said the school had a “legitimate interest” in stopping the publication of articles it considered inappropriate and that might appear the school was condoning.
“If the school is providing the forum, then the school has the ability to have some control over the message,” Rose said.
Stirrat and Rose declined to comment on the alleged sexual assaults Seitz said took place on campus last year, citing student privacy laws. Sexual assault allegations are reported to local law enforcement for investigation and the school follows up on a case-by-case basis according to state education codes, Rose said.
Petaluma police can’t comment on cases involving juveniles because of legal and privacy issues, Lt. Tim Lyons said.
Stirrat said he’s heard “mostly positive” feedback about the administration’s decision to cut the speech off.
“We were trying to make sure our graduation ceremony was appropriate and beautiful,” he said.
Deborah Dalton, whose daughter, Mia Dalton, graduated Saturday from Petaluma High School, said Seitz’s decision to deviate from the speech caused an unwelcome distraction.
“It, to me, showed poor judgment and seemed bold and inflammatory. It marked the day,” said Dalton, the executive director of Petaluma-based nonprofit Mentor Me.
About 14 teens involved in the mentorship program also graduated that day, she said.
Petaluma High School’s student body president Nicole Walker, who also graduated Saturday, applauded Seitz’s actions.
“I’m really proud of Lulabel for having the guts to honestly come out and call out some of the things that are wrong with this administration,” said Walker, 18. “Especially in Petaluma, people want to pretend that everything is perfect because we live in this small town and nothing bad ever happens to high schoolers.”
You can reach Staff Writer Hannah Beausang at 707-521-5214 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @hannahbeausang.