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Kearney High School student speaks out after his yearbook quote was removed

KEARNEY, Mo. — A recent Kearney High School graduate is speaking out after his senior quote was inexplicably removed from the yearbook.

Thomas Swartz, who is openly gay, wanted to leave his school with a statement of support, openness, and acceptance for his fellow students, so he submitted the phrase, ““If Harry Potter taught us anything, it’s that nobody deserves to live in the closet.”

To his surprise when he got his yearbook, the space beneath his photo was blank.

Swartz posted his account of what happened on Facebook.

Another student’s senior quote was also censored.

After Swartz and his family raised the issue, the school district issued a statement.

Dear KHS Families,

District administrators were made aware of concerns regarding the removal of senior quotes from the school yearbook. Each year, graduating seniors are provided an opportunity to pick a favorite quote to be placed in the yearbook. In an effort to protect our students, quotes that could potentially offend another student or groups of students are not published. It is the school’s practice to err on the side of caution. Doing so in this case had the unintentional consequence of offending the very students the practice was designed to protect. We sincerely apologize to those students.

All KSD staff understand the importance of inclusion and acceptance especially in an educational setting. We work diligently to help every student feel safe, supported, and included. District staff participate in ongoing training around issues of diversity and support student organizations that do the same. That being said, we acknowledge our mistake and will use it as a learning opportunity to improve in the future.

Sincerely, Dave Schwarzenbach KHS Principal Dr. Bill Nicely KSD Superintendent of Schools

On Wednesday evening, Swartz delivered a speech at the school board meeting.

I’ve lived in Kearney, Missouri since I was 7 years old and I know most of the people who live here.  Some are completely accepting of who I am, a young gay man.

Some gay people suffer in silence their entire lives. I couldn’t do that. So I came out to my family, and then in the halls of Kearney High School when I was a 15-year-old sophomore. Throughout my time at Kearney High School, I have been picked on and harassed, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle myself.

I learned from my parents, teachers, and peers that the most important thing in life is to “be true to yourself.” As I was ending my final year of ‘child hood’, I finally understood what they meant by being true to myself and my sexuality and I graduated from Kearney, not just a gay man, but a happy one…until recently when I discovered that the very people that helped me grow were not as accepting of me as I thought. Their reason why my senior quote was removed was to, “not offend other students or groups of students”, without any thought of how their actions might offend me!  I wonder, would my quote still have been seen as inappropriate or offensive if I wasn’t an openly gay student? I’m not sure we would be here today if that was the case.

“If Harry Potter taught us anything, it’s that nobody deserves to live in the closet”, was the mark I tried to leave on KHS.  Some of my peers use their senior quotes as throwaway jokes, but mine was meaningful to me. It was meant to be a time capsule for that 4 years of my life, a 4 years I was proud of!  I hoped to pass down those empowering words to anyone who’s ever felt oppressed, bullied or harassed. I wanted to leave my mark on my school.

Sadly, that was taken away from me. My voice was taken, and I became one of the silenced. Now, I demand change. I want the school to know that by simply erasing my quote doesn’t mean that my voice will be silenced.  My voice is going to be heard. This school needs to know that all of its students are important and their attempt to shield them from students like Joey and me is disheartening and oppressive. This is 2017 and everyone deserves to be treated with respect…Equally.

I’ve also been asked, what’s the solution? In my opinion, taking away the opportunity for future graduating seniors to have their voice be heard is not the answer. We need to work together, as a community, to make sure all students are given the chance to leave their quote for posterity. In doing so we may be empowering and helping the underclassmen of Kearney High School find their own voice.

To close I would like to say that I want to be a voice of change in our community, and  for everyone who is afraid to have one.

Thank you.