“Let Devan Speak”: High School Valedictorian Banned From Giving Speech, Suspended

The valedictorian of Lodi High School in Lodi, New Jersey, has been banned from delivering a graduation speech.

Devan Solanki, who is Harvard-bound — he was also accepted to Princeton and Rutgers, plus waitlisted at Dartmouth — will not be giving a valedictory speech to his classmates on June 23.

Odder, though, is the series of escalating events that have led the school administration, not only to ban the valedictorian from delivering his address, but to suspend him entirely.

According to Solanki himself, a few minor disciplinary infractions — most of them amounting to “mouthing off” — began three months ago, when the student was given detention after a verbal altercation with a substitute teacher. From a local report:

[Solanki] explained that he felt the teacher was being disrespectful to a student and he spoke up in that person’s defense.

“I thought that was water under the bridge. That can’t be nearly important enough to merit something like this,” said Solanki.

Administrators informed Solanki of their decision on June 4, explaining they would choose another student to deliver the graduation speech.

It’s part of an entirely new policy the administration had apparently already been considering: “They told me that they have been trying to implement a new policy where National Honor Society members apply for the chance to give the speech, and now was as good of a time as ever,” Solanki explained in a letter addressed to his teachers. “They said that due to my disciplinary history, I would not even be considered in the running.”

Gorav Kumar, president of Lodi High’s National Honor Society, told press,

“They [administration] told him they were starting a new policy which they said was based on other schools around us getting rid of the valedictorian speech, which we looked into. That doesn’t seem like it’s true at all.”

On Monday, June 15, Solanki waited to speak to the Lodi High School guidance counselor in her office. “I just want to resolve this peacefully,” he reportedly said to her that day.

That word — “peacefully” — evidently struck the counselor as loaded, and she reported the exchange as a verbal threat. Solanki was subsequently suspended; Lodi’s principal, Frank D’Amico, informed Solanki that he could not venture within 50 feet of school property.

Most infuriatingly, administration agreed to let Solanki return to school if he underwent psychiatric evaluation. Solanki passed, but he has not yet returned to school as of this writing.

On Tuesday, June 16, between 40 and 90 students (depending on the source) gathered at the school to protest the administration’s decisions, holding handmade signs that read “Let Devan Speak”:

“The student body agreed unanimously… that Devan deserved to give the speech,” said Goraz Kumar, the National Honor Society president, a junior. “When we found out that he wouldn’t get a chance to give the speech, that he had to get mentally evaluated to come back to school, we all thought that was enough and we need to voice our opinion.”

But administrators aren’t budging, students say, and many believe officials have made an example out of Solanki for his tendency to speak out against various teachers.

the Let Devan Speak student protest on Tuesday

“I’ve been lectured time and time again about picking my battles very carefully,” Solanki told Reason.com via email. “To be frank, I can’t think of anything else that I’d rather make a stand against.”

In addition to the suspension, Lodi High School has barred Solanki from attending graduation at all. Local station PIX11 News reports:

It’s been a tough year for the family. Devan’s father passed away only 8 months ago and [Solanki’s mother] Nayana said the family even delayed their trip to India to spread her husband’s ashes, so they could attend Devan’s graduation.

Okay. Let me drop my poker-face act and concede I absolutely have a horse in this race.

My husband and I were both constantly, notoriously in trouble for talking out-of-turn — and especially for talking back to authority! — right up until our teens. Hell, in the 8th grade I was warned I was in danger of not attending an honors classes overnight field trip, for “disciplinary reasons.”

My husband and I have repeatedly discussed the likelihood of parenting a kid who may often find himself in the same type of hot water. We’re not, like, huge nonconformists or anything, but we are big believers in kids being taught to speak their hearts rather than just folding. We’ve already agreed that we would go to bat for our hypothetical kid’s individualism and, barring that, we’d absolutely pull the kid out of school.

What really makes me seethe about all this, though, is that, by high school, I was never hassled for my outspokenness. And, believe me, I was a real pain in the schoolboard’s ass. But I wasn’t punished; on the contrary, I was by-and-large rewarded for my brassiness. (I once complained to my mother I felt I’d been given a spot on the Student-Teacher Board “just to shut me up” about dress code changes, which I’d actively been campaigning against.)

So why the vast gulf of difference between my high school experience and Devan Solanki’s? Is it because I was an unthreatening white girl? (Incidentally, Solanki is Indian-American.) Is it because my mother was one of the high school’s guidance counselors, which probably afforded me a whole lot more freedom? Was my mother, just maybe, the one authority figure barely keeping me “in line”? We shall never know.

But we do know this: Solanki’s sharp tongue managed to make him some enemies during his few short years at Lodi High School. And as I see it, it’s plain that administration and faculty are using the last month of Solanki’s time as a student to teach him a lesson. Whatever the “lesson” is supposed to be, here, it’s an awful one to teach a child. It isn’t right, it isn’t fair; above all, it’s petty and vindictive.

According to the PIX11 News broadcast, Solanki’s classmates have even discussed organizing a protest of the graduation, but Solanki has so far “discouraged” that plan, not wanting to “distract” the other families from “such a special day.”

Devan Solanki, meanwhile, graduates with a 4.3 GPA and a bright future.

You can read Solanki’s speech, which he will never give, here.