Students vilify 'unqualified' teachers in graduation speeches: 'This school is run on excuses and lies'

Senior students Zainab Atalagni and Tuhfa Kasem slammed their Detroit, Michigan, high schools during their graduation ceremonies. (Screenshot: Fox 2 Detroit)

In blistering graduation speeches, two teenagers called out their high school for employing “unqualified teachers” and committing “unlawful acts” before one’s microphone was cut.

According to the Detroit Metro TimesUniversal Academy Salutatorian Tuhfa Kasem, 17, criticized the Detroit school and its overseeing body, Hamadeh Educational Services, in her June graduation speech.

Teacher Phillip Leslie, who told Fox 2 Detroit he was fired from Universal after complaining about the school’s scant resources, posted on YouTube a written version of Kasem’s speech and a video of her classmates screaming, “Talk louder!” when her microphone was cut.

Leslie also posted a video of senior Zainab Atalagni’s speech, who reportedly said, “Like a machine, this school is run on excuses and lies.” Atalagni finished her entire speech without interruption.

Kasem said that she and Atalagni were to give valedictorian speeches, but were demoted to salutatorian, a title for the second highest-ranking academic student.

“...Now, moving on, I originally wrote this speech a week ago as valedictorian but I’m here speaking as salutatorian after this spot was wrongfully and knowingly robbed from me, along with my friend Zainab, by the administration with the short notice of just two days,” said Kasem. “Having three students with the same exact grades but giving the position to one instead of all three. This is a reoccurring issue that happens annually.”

On her first day at school, Kasem noted “favoritism and clear biases” when it came to University Academy’s sister school, Star Academy, according to Detroit Metro Times. “Thinking we’d just stay quiet and accept it as first-generation Yemen/Iraqi students,” she said. “I can honestly say it’s partially our faults since we’ve tolerated it for a majority of the time. The few times we would speak out we’d quickly be shut down and excuses would be shoved down our throats and we’d be given no option but to accept them…”

Kasem spoke of “dozens of unlawful acts that occur on a regular basis” such as hiring “unqualified” teachers and substitutes and dismissing student frustration. “And when we’d voice our frustrations on the lack of education we’re receiving as students, we’d get quickly shut down with there being a state-wide issue with a need for teachers,” she said. “And while that may be true, can you give me an explanation on why you can’t seem to keep any of the certified teachers that actually do come to this school? You can’t seem to keep any good teacher that are actually here with good intentions for more than a year or max, couple of years.”

Kasem, once class president, alleged that four years ago, eight teachers were fired because “they all attended a board meeting in order to try and better the issues that we students face on the daily, whether it’s lack of resources or the lack of a curriculum.”

She continued: “This nonsense has gone on for way too long and they have tried to silence us many times before, but I thought since I’m graduating this is the perfect opportunity to let out all of the things I’ve endured for far too long. I am surely not doing this for myself as I am gladly leaving. This is to make a change for everyone else.”

Yahoo Lifestyle could not reach Kasem, Atalagni, or Leslie for comment. Mario L. Morrow, Sr., a spokesperson for Hamadeh Educational Services, called the students’ speeches “unfounded” and blamed their actions on alleged jealousy at not earning valedictorian roles.

“At Universal Academy, we are privileged to be able to provide our students with high quality education. We teach civic participation and strongly encourage our students to participate in our democracy,” Morrow tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

“...We celebrate all of our students and, as in the past years, and in school districts statewide, the honor of speaking as valedictorian is a hallowed tradition in the school setting — one that can engender hurt feelings and controversy, no matter who is chosen. Rather than celebrating the success of our students who worked hard to achieve the status of valedictorian and salutatorian, the 2019 graduation event created controversy unlike any previous event. A few disgruntled adults have attempted to sully the Academy’s honorable achievements and the graduation celebration to cause controversy to serve their own agendas which have nothing to do with the students’ best interests.

“The student speech that was reported in negative media coverage was merely the result of the work of those adults to accomplish their goals. We are so sad to see that some of our students were misled and used to serve agendas that have nothing to do with what really serves their interests. Having said that, the negative statements at the graduation ceremony are unfounded. We will continue to work hard for our students and will remain focused on their best interests. We are proud of all of our graduates and would like to wish them the best of luck in their pursuit of their college and career goals. We are confident in their abilities and the opportunities that lay ahead of them.”

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