In the middle of her valedictorian address, Rooha Haghar went off-script. While writing her speech, Haghar, the top student at Emmett J. Conrad High School in Dallas, wanted both to reflect on her classmates’ accomplishments and also to remember young people who couldn’t earn diplomas, whether because they dropped out to financially support their families, faced religious persecution in places like her native Iran or were victims of school shootings.
But when it came to acknowledging young black men who have died at the hands of police and other officials, she says her principal drew the line, fearing that would be too much of a political statement.
Once she stood onstage Saturday, though, Haghar veered away from the edited speech.
“To Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and all the other children who became victims of injustice,” the 19-year-old said.
That’s when Haghar’s microphone cut off, bringing her speech to an abrupt end. In a video Haghar posted to Twitter this week, which has since been viewed more than 850,000 times, the school’s principal, Temesghen Asmerom, flashes a thumbs-up right before her mic is turned off. He described the incident as a technical difficulty to those in attendance.
“I was like, ‘Wow, they really did this. They really went there,’ ” she said in an interview with The Washington Post.
Neither Asmerom nor the Dallas Independent School District responded to messages late Wednesday, but the school district told KXAS on Tuesday it was investigating what happened.
“In Dallas ISD, we educate leaders of tomorrow and encourage student voices, and we are looking into this matter,” the district said.
Haghar is just the latest high-schooler to use a commencement speech as a platform to advocate personal beliefs — a move that has often challenged schools and administrators during a period of increasingly partisan politics.
“I knew there would be consequences, but sometimes you have to face the consequences because it’s needed,” she said. “But I never expected them to silence me right there.”
Haghar says she immediately felt pushback while planning her speech. When Haghar first read a draft to a teacher a week before graduation, she said the teacher told her the address was too political and that mentioning Martin and Rice, as well as Michael Brown and Jordan Edwards, would “incite anger towards white people, a group, which, according to him, experience high levels of discrimination in America.”
In her first meeting with Asmerom, the principal, she said he told her that saying the names were against Dallas ISD’s valedictorian speech guidelines. A day before graduation, Haghar said the principal suggested that speaking out about Martin and Rice wouldn’t change anything until she was in a position of power.
“I don’t think he had a problem with my speech, and his intentions were not rooted in hate, but him saying that me mentioning those names won’t make a difference is something I disagreed with,” she told The Post. “I told him how some of us won’t ever have a position of power, so to just sit there and wait is the wrong mind-set to have.”
Haghar isn’t the first to cause waves with a politically tinged graduation speech. In 2016, as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee was promising to build a wall at the southern border, two valedictorians at Texas high schools announced they were undocumented. In 2018, a valedictorian in Wisconsin ended up not speaking after she was told by administrators that talking about discrimination, gender inequality and school shootings was too controversial. This year, another Wisconsin top student was prohibited from giving a speech in which he wanted to talk about being gay.
In April, the valedictorian of the political science department at Brigham Young University came out as gay in a speech at the flagship academic institution of the Mormon Church, where same-sex marriage is considered a “serious transgression.” Last month, a Florida student, whose speech focused on resilience and the fortitude of immigrants, was prohibited from speaking after she would not edit out certain lines deemed offensive.
Haghar’s path to the graduation podium in Dallas began eight years ago and nearly 7,700 miles away in Shiraz, Iran. As her family continued to face religious persecution in Iran for following the Baha’i faith, a religion that the country refuses to acknowledge, they were granted refugee status in 2011. After a 14-month stay in Turkey, the family of five moved to Dallas in 2012. She went from not being able to play her violin or talk about her religion in Shiraz to using Netflix to help improve her English in those early years in the United States.
Now, Haghar, whose mother works at Walmart and whose father is a factory worker and part-time Walmart employee, will attend the University of Texas at Austin to major in international relations and global studies. She hopes to start her own nonprofit or work for a nongovernmental organization in the Middle East.
Even with a viral online response to the video of her mic apparently getting cut off, she said she holds no ill will toward her principal, the school or the district. The teen maintains that her Conrad classmates needed to hear the names of young black men whose lives were ended prematurely, like Martin and Rice, for perspective on the opportunity they have as high school graduates.
“Our four years of high school have been surrounded with issues like police brutality, politics we’re not okay with and school shootings,” she said. “We’ve been living with this reality for a while. I wasn’t introducing something new at graduation.”
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