The Fresno Unified valedictorian who went public with his graduation speech after it was rejected by school staff is seeking monetary damages from the district, saying administrators violated his privacy and sought to defame him.
Gregory Weaver, a recent Bullard High School graduate headed to Stanford University, published a critical commentary in The Fresno Bee’s Valley Voices column last week, accusing school administrators of perpetuating cheating in order to boost graduation rates and describing a violent, overcrowded campus. Weaver, Bullard High’s top graduate, was not chosen as one of three valedictorians at the school to present a commencement speech, so he turned to The Bee to publish his thoughts, which also criticized Superintendent Michael Hanson.
After publication of the column, which was widely shared, the district denied censoring Weaver’s speech because of its content. Fresno Unified spokesman Miguel Arias said last week that the speech printed by The Bee was not the same speech that was rejected by Bullard High and pointed to Weaver’s relationship with Mark Arax, local author and longtime critic of the district. Arias released emails to The Bee that showed Arax contacted Bullard Principal Carlos Castillo in May, questioning why Weaver – who he says he considers like a son – was not chosen to give a commencement speech. The district also released Weaver’s originally submitted speech, which is less critical than the one that ran in The Bee.
Arax runs a blog that has targeted Arias and other Fresno Unified administrators amid an ongoing federal investigation of the district’s no-bid contracts. But he said he had no influence over Weaver’s speech.
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The school district succeeded in defaming me.
Bullard graduate Gregory Weaver
Weaver has filed a complaint with the district, alleging that Arias, Hanson and Castillo violated student privacy laws by releasing the information and intentionally defamed him. He is seeking “formal reprimands” of the three officials and monetary damages. The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act protects student information and records, including grades.
“By linking both my speech and opinion piece to Mr. Arax, the school district hoped to imply the following: That I did not write The Bee opinion piece that went viral; that the piece was likely written by Mr. Arax, or, if he didn’t write it, he put the words in my mouth,” Weaver’s complaint said. “No one in Fresno Unified ever sought or received permission from me or my parents to release the information. I want the internal (investigation) to delve into who inside Fresno Unified made the decisions to release such information.”
Fresno Unified trustee Brooke Ashjian voiced the same concerns as Weaver at Wednesday’s school board meeting, questioning whether the district was legally allowed to release the speech and related email exchange.
Arias said that the emails were requested under the Public Records Act but would not say who made the request.
“The district does not comment on personnel matters. However, the district’s action was in response to a guest editorial piece that publicly and falsely accused district staff of censoring a valedictorian’s speech,” Arias said in a statement Thursday. “Nevertheless, we appreciate the opportunity his editorial provided us to reaffirm our commitment to high academic standards and wish him the best in his future endeavors.”