Salutatorian snubbed at Smithfield

Published 11:34 pm Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Smithfield High class of 2020 salutatorian Mathis Kremer’s parting message to his classmates and the community was excluded from the school’s June 13 virtual graduation ceremony.

As salutatorian — the second-highest academically ranked student in the class — Mathis wanted to use the opportunity to talk about mental health awareness and education. But when everyone tuned in online, not only was his speech omitted, the school also failed to announce his academic accomplishment at all.

School division officials say the omissions were unintentional and they have since apologized. 

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Although “I feel like they should just have more trust if they’re going to ask me to write a speech,” Mathis said, he isn’t taking it personally.

In his original 555-word speech, Mathis, who is the son of Keith and Ellen Kremer, shared statistics on youth anxiety, depression, suicide, mass shootings and the links between mental health and social issues. He advocated for in-school mental health education, including a class based on neuroscience and psychology that would teach self-care and help students learn the how and why and the importance of taking care of their mental health. 

“We can’t leave this job to the parents anymore,” Mathis said in his remarks, which cite 2017 Harris Poll statistics that show just 33% of Americans reported that they were happy. “Unhappy parents can’t be expected to teach their children how to be happy.” 

The full speech also mentioned past threats against Smithfield High.

School officials deemed his address too dark and told him to revise it. He rewrote it three times, recorded it twice and shortened it from three minutes to a six-sentence speech that clocked in at about 20 seconds.

But it was still left out. 

“We were watching the video live on Saturday morning and we could not believe that it was omitted,” said Ellen Kremer. “We were stunned. Mathis was angry and so upset. What should have been a joyous occasion for us and him turned into an ugly experience.”

“Mathis’s speech was not radical or offensive, but was original, thoughtful, a little provocative, but most of all, based on today’s reality — you may judge for yourself and read or watch his original, unedited speech below,” Keith and Ellen Kremer wrote in an email to school division leaders that included a social media link.

As of midday on June 19, it had more than 4,000 views on Instagram.

“He didn’t mean to insult the school. He didn’t mean for it to be offensive at all,” said Ellen Kremer. “He just wanted to send a message that kids these days have so much anxiety and they don’t know how to deal with it.” 

Mathis Kremer echoed that sentiment. “Teaching students about their bodies and not their minds perpetuates a culture in which our body is the primary concern in matters of maintaining a healthy lifestyle,” he said. 

In a statement, school division spokeswoman Lynn Briggs said the omissions were the result of “an unfortunate miscommunication at the school level that kept his speech from being included in the June 13 video.”

“Not identifying him as salutatorian in the video was a complete oversight,” Briggs continued. “Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton and Smithfield High School Principal Christopher Coleman have spoken to the family regarding the situation. To resolve the matter, the student’s full speech is now included in the online video of the Smithfield High graduation (which can be found on the IWCS Facebook page and YouTube channel). It will also be included in the video loaded on flash drives that will be provided to each student,” Briggs said.

Coleman also issued an apology through the division’s mass email and phone alert system.

“Unfortunately, I made a decision that created an awkward situation and placed a blemish on the ceremony for at least one family,” Coleman’s statement said. “Not including the salutatorian’s speech in the graduation video was my decision.” 

Coleman served as interim principal of Smithfield High. He’s leaving that role July 1 and returning to his previous position as the division’s director of support services. 

“As you go through life,” Coleman said, “you will probably make mistakes that will impact others. It is important to own your mistakes, learn from them, and do what you can do to correct the situation, which is what I’m hoping to do with this message.”