VANCOUVER, Wash — Dressed in his cap and gown, an outgoing senior took the stage for Wednesday’s schoolwide ceremony at Heritage High School, a precursor to the actual graduation, and began his prepared remarks.
He spoke to younger students about the road ahead.
“There will be drama,” read Charles Chandler. “There will be heartbreak. But there will be great friendships and even greater memories.”
He continued with harsher truths.
“You will also get told you're too tall. Too short. Too wide. Too skinny,” read Chandler.
Then, after a few paragraphs, the 17-year-old went admittedly off his school-approved script.
“…the administration closes their eyes to everything that happens in this school. Their school,” he said. “The sexual assault, the bullying, the depression, the outcasts, and they do nothing to fix it. They just cast it aside like it's nothing. Or if they do take notice, they take the side of the accused and not the victim.”
Staff did not.
Charles Chandler won’t walk at graduation Saturday.
“I decided someone has to bring light to this topic,” he said.
In an interview Thursday, the Vancouver native said he’d auditioned to give the speech roughly a month ago.
Since then he heard an account of another student being sexually assaulted.
Declining to give specifics, Chandler said he changed his speech after later learning the accused assailant wouldn’t be punished.
He claimed Thursday it wasn’t the first time.
“I've had friends get groped,” he said. “I've had friends get thrown against the wall because they're gay. I've had friends with nooses put around their necks. I've had friends who have had trash thrown at them or chairs thrown at them.”
In a letter home to parents Thursday, the school’s principal described Chandler’s speech, without naming him, and said it had "…many inaccuracies, inflammatory statements, and unsubstantiated accusations."
Principal Derek Garrison went on to say the school is dedicated to ensuring student’s physical and emotional safety, adding “…even when speaking about very real and serious problems in the world in which we live, if they add untruths about other people, including students and staff, it can be considered harassment and bullying."
The letter also said Chandler was offered choices to remedy the situation, and he chose not to walk in graduation.
Chandler said that’s not true.
He claimed he, in fact, chose another option: to help the school build a curriculum educating people about bullying and sexual harassment. He said he was informed later he would not be allowed to walk.
Either way, Chandler said he’d give the speech again, especially knowing younger students are listening.
“I want them to know the school's still a safe place, but if anything does happen to them, they need to speak up,” he said. “And they need to not just go to the administration, but find other ways to get help.”