State lawmakers object, district apologizes, after Orlando valedictorian blocked from giving speech on immigrants

Kriya Naidu
For the YouTube generation, there's always a way to get a message out

An Orlando high school valedictorian was denied an opportunity Tuesday to present a commencement address that drew lessons from her family’s challenges as immigrants, leading Democratic state Reps. Anna Eskamani, Amy Mercado, and Carlos Guillermo Smith to object.

The school district has since apologized and decided to review its policies.

University High School valedictorian Kriya Naidu said in a YouTube.com video posted late Tuesday and an interview with FOX 35 News in Orlando Wednesday that she was told just hours before Tuesday’s UHS commencement ceremonies that she would not be allowed to give her speech.

So she posted her speech on YouTube, talking about the challenges her parents faced as immigrants from South Africa, and how they persevered, and how the lessons for immigrants and everyone else boil down to never giving up. As presented in the YouTube video, her speech contains nothing overtly political or obviously controversial. It simply talks about immigrants pursuing the American Dream against additional challenges, including discrimination, and how that dream therefore is achievable for everyone.

Orange County Public Schools initially released a statement Wednesday that said, “Valedictorians are role models to their peers and their speech is a moment of inspiration and celebration. University High School administrators worked closely with the valedictorian providing her guidance after reviewing her speech. She was then given the opportunity to pre-record her speech as is the practice in some of our high schools. We were disappointed that she chose not to do so.”

After news of the event began to spread, the district released a second statement Thursday:

“The district has apologized to the Naidu family. The School Board and Superintendent were not aware of the controversy prior to University High School’s graduation ceremony. Kriya has been invited to give her speech at the next school board meeting and to have it professionally recorded and posted to the district’s website and shared on social media platforms. The district is reviewing its commencement practices for improvements.”

Naidu told FOX 35 Orlando that she never was given an ultimatum or a warning that she might not speak, and was surprised when told on the day of graduation that she would not be allowed to give her speech.

Yet the YouTube generation has ways of getting messages out. By Thursday morning, her video had been viewed more than 13,000 times.

Orange County School Board Member Angie Gallo, whose district includes University High School and who attended the graduation, said she was notified that day that the valedictorian’s speech was being canceled, but was not told why. She since has inquired, finding it was a decision made at the school administration level, not the district. She asked the school to provide her with Naidu’s drafts and she reviewed those and the YouTube video. She said the only differences were a couple of potentially poor-taste jokes about the school that officials asked her to cut, which she did.

“I personally do not have an issue with her speech at all,” Gallo said.

Gallo said she emailed her parents and apologized. She also emailed the district administration asking for a review of the district’s guidelines and policies regarding graduation speeches.

Smith, whose district includes University High School and who also attended the commencement ceremony, shared links to the speech on social media with criticism of the school’s decision to deny her to speak. Mercado, whose children graduated from University High School, and Eskamani, who herself graduated from University High School, did the same.

Smith spoke with some district officials and came away unconvinced that there was any good reason for school officials to not trust Naidu to give her speech.

“It’s never a good look to stop a valedictorian from speaking,” he said. “So what began as adults trying to teach a student a lesson ended up being the opposite.”

Mercado said she reached out to the district with a request of, “Help me understand.”

“As a parent I was involved in that school; that’s where my kids graduated, so it’s disconcerting,” Mercado said. “We teach our kids, alongside the educators, to fight for what they believe in, state their positions, whether we like those positions or not. We’re teaching them how to write, how to think, critical thinking. This young woman has done all that, has earned her spot, and now this occurs.”

Eskamani said she identified with Naidu’s life story, which is very similar to her own.

“One of the reasons why this has been so amplified is because it is such a beautiful speech. It speaks to her immigrant identity that is inspirational,” Eskamani said. “Any form of censorship in our public schools is inappropriate. … It’s very disappointing that the school district made this decision with no context as to why.”

In the video, Naidu stands before a bedroom wall decorated with more ribbons than Tony Orlando‘s Ole Oak Tree, and says that she was not allowed to give her speech at graduation, “so here it is.” After she gives congratulations and thanks to her classmates and family, she offers her lesson to classmates: to never give up. She focuses on her parents as examples, as they achieved the American Dream, due to all the opportunities America afforded them and despite additional challenges experienced by many immigrants.

“They faced their fair share of challenges: prejudice, difficulty securing jobs, pay parity, and much more. But, every time they were knocked down, they got back up,” she says. “Their success is an example of what immigrants, people of color and everyone can achieve with hard work, even when they find themselves in a country that seems to work against them. As Lin-Manuel Miranda said, ‘Immigrants: we get the job done.'”

She then points out that almost everyone at the graduation, and teachers, police, soldiers, engineers, construction workers, farmers, artists, entertainers, and others, all are either immigrants or the descendants of people who “moved to America with dreams in their heart.”

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected]


16 comments

  • Mira Vanzandt

    May 30, 2019 at 2:21 pm

    The average cost for taxpayers to fund an illegal alien kindergarten thru 12th grade is $122,000.

    Lets see, we have Democrat / Socialist / Activists in the Northern Triangle of South America & Mexico; even as you read this instructing the populations the “benefits” & laws of coming to the USA and to make sure you bring your children and use the the magic words…..”credible fear.”

    Then you have a Democrat House saying the crisis is “manufactured” as literally thousands attack our border daily? National Sovereignty is a myth to Democrats. The crisis is manufactured…by the Democrats themselves. Make no mistake about this, Democrats want this to happen and never stop.. They will with hold border security support allowing as many illegal aliens to enter the country as possible overwhelming our BP & ICE before assisting in border security (if ever.)

    Its very clear & obvious to Democrats/Progressives/Socialists (whats the difference?) programs like Temporary Protective Status (TPS) or Deferred Action for Childhood arrivals (DACA) or the “visa lottery” program (Chuck Schumer’s idea) are permanent programs. There is nothing “temporary or deferred” about these programs to Democrats. These programs are designed to admit refugees (usually from the third world) then Democrats fight to keep them here permanently using the charge of racism, religion, guilt, against anyone opposed. Simple formula works great.

    The current migration at our border is costing taxpayers a Kings ransom. Fleeing persecution? or fleeing for freebies? they sure don’t stay in Mexico when they reach “safety” or ask or offered political asylum in Mexico. Why? because Mexico will give them NOTHING. So they make the long journey to our border, our generous Democrats, and our tax dollars. Notice how many have made the long, difficult, dangerous journey to our country 8-9 months pregnant?

    Just a few examples of the more outrageous costs associated with illegal immigration, we will pass this burden on to our children & grand children as has been passed on to us.

    * City emergency services Taxpayer pay for every police, fire, paramedic service call for illegal aliens in their city. Taxpayers also pay for all hospital, emergency room treatments, ambulances, medications….everything. Hospital wait times for citizens are negatively impacted.

    *Cost of educating illegal aliens is staggering. From K-12 it costs taxpayers on average $122,000 for EACH illegal alien student. This does not include the millions spent on bilingual ED, instructors, special need children & day care. It is estimated nearly 100,000 illegal aliens graduate each year……you do the math. School class size are also negatively impacted by illegal aliens and our students suffer as a result.

    *Taxpayers in some states are funding “in state college tuition” discounts for illegal aliens. (AZ voted to terminate this taxpayer expense.) Cost to taxpayers over a billion dollars annually.

    *About one in five inmates in federal prison are foreign-born, & more than 90% of those are in the U.S illegally. This does not include local jails and state prisons. At roughly $24,000 per year expense per inmate.

    *$3Million Dollars a DAY is spent to incarcerate, process Illegal aliens in the criminal justice system.

    *$2.2 Billion dollars a year is spent on is spent on food assistance programs such as SNAP, WIC, & taxpayer funded school lunches.

    *Mexico received 33 billion last year in remittance from our country. $120 billion total was sent out of the United States in total remittance last year.

    *Every child birth by illegal aliens in the U.S is paid for with tax dollars.In the US, the average cost to have a baby without complications during delivery, is $10,808, which can increase to $30,000 when factoring in care provided before and after pregnancy (July 9, 2018 google.)

    * Section 8 housing. Illegal aliens take full advantage of this program. Citizens & their families in poverty in many cases wait years behind non citizens for emergency housing.

    • Chris Wiglesworth

      May 30, 2019 at 3:41 pm

      I am a Florida and US citizen and a taxpayer. Most of my family came to this land before there was a United States. They settled in Massachusetts and now Florida.

      This nation is built on immigration and diversity and freedom going all the way back to its beginnings. If all you can do is use statistics to complain about costs, why don’t you include all the cost each American student receives to get a good public education or businesses receive in taxpayer benefits. Of course everything cost money.

      You comments are one sided and don’t discuss at all the benefits hard working immigrants bring to our economy and contribute to making this the greatest nation on earth. From working in agriculture to engineering and medicine. The homes, goods and services a growing population and immigration provides us. We should count our blessings to have them.

      To continue this hatred of immigration is very sad and I think is rooted in a deeper dark corner of this nations history. I am so happy that this young bright student’s message got out and this very interesting news article.

    • buddhistMonkey

      June 1, 2019 at 11:14 pm

      The hate is swelling in you now. Strike me down with it. Give in to your anger. With each passing moment, you make yourself more my servant. Good. Use your aggressive feelings! Let the hate flow through you. GOOD! Your hate has made you powerful!

    • Marcel Kincaid

      June 2, 2019 at 12:02 pm

      Why are you talking about illegal immigrants, you racist maggot?

    • Gary

      June 4, 2019 at 3:24 pm

      You can see the problem created in the past when we allowed unlimited immigration from the racist Zandt region of Belgium.

    • Marcus Pun

      June 5, 2019 at 4:19 am

      Interestingly one sided. To be expected. The State of California experience is an example of how wrong you are. According to the state controller, undocumented immigrants in California contribute approximately $180 BILLION dollars to the state’s economy. That’s about the size of Oklahoma’s economy. They also directly contribute $3 Billion in taxes, with additional tax money coming indirectly from the $180 billion in economic activity. You can complain about costs but you can’t ignore the benefits to state agriculture, construction, services, and more.

    • Mustvote

      June 5, 2019 at 12:34 pm

      Your statistics and examples here are irrelevant.
      There is no indication that this family were illegal immigrants.
      There are also many examples of the benefits of immigration for countries. But of course that is not the point you are trying to make.

      Take your ignorance and bigotry and crawl back under a rock.

    • Christopher Johnson

      June 6, 2019 at 11:33 pm

      The cost of education is nothing compared to the cost of ignorance.

  • Sandy Stenoff

    May 31, 2019 at 1:14 am

    Thank you, Scott Powers.

    This is the best coverage of this beautiful young girl’s awful experience. I am a UHS parent and this deeply saddened me that any student could be treated so disgracefully, especially one who has worked so hard for everything she has achieved. She earned it. She and her family have been wronged and there is no taking it back. All the excuses have been inadequate and reveal the adult in charge to be petty and transparent. Yet Kriya Naidu has conducted herself with grace and poise. Her star is rising and the world is wishing her well.

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