One of the two gay Kearney High School graduates whose quotes were omitted from the yearbook addressed the district’s school board Wednesday night.
“My voice was taken, and I became one of the silenced,” Thomas Swartz wrote in a statement he presented to the board. His statement was acquired by The Star.
“Now, I demand change,” Swartz wrote. “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.”
Swartz’s comments were followed by comments from a Kearney High School teacher, Tim Marshall, and a parent, Debbie Holt.
Both Marshall and Holt defended the district, the high school, and Principal David Schwarzenbach as being accepting and supporting of all students, including those who are members of the LGBTQ community.
They said the omission of the two boys’ quotes was the result of a communications error and was never intended to hurt the students.
A week ago, when Swartz and classmate Joey Slivinski opened the yearbook that would commemorate their four years at Kearney High School, they found blank space beneath their individual senior photos.
Students making a comment under their senior portraits in the yearbook is a longtime tradition at high schools.
Both Slivinski and Swartz, who are openly gay, took the opportunity to celebrate their sexual orientation, with quotes that each believed were inspirational and reflected who they are.
Quotes from nine other students were also omitted from the yearbook. District officials said they were flagged because of some problems with the quotes, but officials did not identify those problems.
Students were supposed to be called and questioned about the quotes, but they were not.
The two students, friends, family, alumni and members of the community took to social media with a torrent of comments criticizing the school for removing the students’ quotes.
After news reports surfaced about the omissions, school administrators “received threats of violence from around the world,” said Sonja Love, district spokeswoman.
“At the end of the day, the Kearney School District has so many things going on in it to be proud of, let us not let this define who we are as a district and as a community,” Holt said. “It is our choice once the hoopla fades to be the community that we are: loving, gracious, caring and forgiving.”
Board president Mark Kelly said administrators are discussing whether it may be too “administratively tedious” to continue the yearbook quotes in the future. No action was taken by the board on the matter Wednesday night.
One board member, Matthew Ryan Hunt, who is gay, posted his support of the two graduates on Facebook last week after first sending his post by email to board members.
At Wednesday’s meeting, he again said he supports the graduates and is having stickers made with their quotes on them that the two can adhere to their yearbooks.
Kelly verbally scolded Hunt during the meeting for posting his support on social media rather than handling the matter quietly with the district. Kelly said it would be up to school administrators to decide what to do about yearbook quotes going forward.
Swartz who will attend the University of Missouri-Kansas City this fall, asked the board not to discontinue the opportunity for seniors to leave quotes under their portraits as a solution to such omissions never happening again.
“Taking away the opportunity for future graduating seniors to have their voice be heard is not the answer,” Swartz said.
His mother, Dena Swartz, said she is “extremely proud” of her son for speaking out about the omissions. “I have told Thomas since he was eight years old to eat life, take it all in, so it is Thomas’s voice that I want to be heard.”
Swartz, who said he had been “picked on and harassed” throughout high school, said his quote in the yearbook would be his announcement for posterity that “I finally understood what they (his parents and teachers) meant by being true to myself and my sexuality, and I graduated from Kearney, not just a gay man, but a happy one.”
He said his quote — “If Harry Potter taught us anything, it’s that nobody deserves to live in the closet” — was meaningful to him. “It was meant to be a time capsule for that four years of my life, a four years I was proud of.”