School censors valedictorian's speech to remove reference to student's death

Abby Cenerini said she had planned to recognize Michael Stewart in her speech. Stewart died in January.

'We lost a life and that deserves to be recognized'

Abby Cenerini reads the part of her valedictorian speech her high school censored because it referenced a fellow student's suicide. 0:45

A graduate from Cole Harbour District High School was told to remove comments about a fellow student's death from her valedictory speech on Wednesday.

Abby Cenerini said she had planned to recognize Michael Stewart in her remarks. Stewart died by suicide in January.

Cenerini said about 10 to 15 minutes before the graduation ceremony began, she was approached by a teacher who said she had to take the part about Stewart's death out of her speech because it was "against school board policy."

She said the school had sent her an email informing her at 10:30 a.m., but she had been out taking pictures and did not see it before the ceremony began at 2 p.m.

Her initial reaction to the speech being changed was panic, and then she said she started to become upset.

"I just felt horrible about the fact that I couldn't remember a student," said Cenerini.

She said it was important to so many students to acknowledge Stewart because his death affected their community at such an important time in their lives.

"This was so difficult for many of our graduating students, but they were still able to persevere and they got their diplomas."

Abby Cenerini said she wanted to represent her entire graduating class in her speech and to her that included recognizing Michael Stewart. (CBC)

At the time of Stewart's death, students were able to obtain counselling, said Cenerini.

She said there was nothing in her speech that talked explicitly about suicide or mental illness and she thinks the school made the wrong decision.

"I understand that some things can't happen due to other students being at risk. But I don't agree with completely ignoring it."

She said she wonders how the school would have treated the situation if Stewart had died under different circumstances.

"I believe that it should be treated the same because we lost a life. It doesn't matter how we lost that life, we lost a life, and that deserves to be recognized."

She said she posted the part of the speech that was removed on Facebook as a way of telling other students that, despite it not being included in her speech, Stewart was in her thoughts.

She has not talked to the principal of the school about it since.

No policy in place

Doug Hadley, the co-ordinator of communications for the Halifax Regional Centre for Education, said in an email there is "no HRCE policy in place regarding discussion around suicide."

He referenced advice from Dr. Stan Kutcher, an expert in adolescent mental health, who he said recommends "there are certain topics, suicide being one, that should not be discussed as 'one-offs' in large assembly-like settings," said Hadley.

Hadley added that schools should work with their valedictorian on the content of the speech and said "there is no involvement of the HRCE."

Counselling was made available to students after Michael Stewart's death in January. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Michael Stewart's father, Chris Stewart, said he was surprised to hear that Cenerini's speech had been edited.

"I was kind of shocked that they wouldn't let that be in the speech. Just for the simple fact where there was no mention of the suicide and that is their excuse why they didn't want it in there."

Stewart said that he thought what Cenerini wrote was a wonderful piece about his son.

"It was just for the people who were still mourning for Michael and to have him part of the celebration for the graduation because he was a big part of the Cole Harbour community since grade primary."

He said he doesn't think that the school made the right decision.

"When you talk to professionals and stuff like that they always say it should be something that's talked about," said Chris Stewart.

Opening up a dialogue

Chris Stewart said the graduation was an opportunity to open up a dialogue.

"People we talked to at the school came to the wake and said it's something that should be out in the open," he said. "So I don't think it should be kept in the background."

He said the whole Stewart family is standing behind Cenerini and said he thinks she took every possible precaution not to make a scene about the reasons behind Michael's death.

"It's the perfect opportunity to actually talk about it and try to get help out there," said Chris Stewart.

He said after his son died, he didn't hear from school administration, but several teachers showed up at the wake.

Chris Stewart said the students put out a booklet where people could write down memories of his son. The booklet was then given to the family.

Re-evaluation of approach

Cole Harbour District High School is the same school that Rehtaeh Parsons attended.

Parsons attempted to take her own life in 2013, when she was 17, after she said she was sexually assaulted and then bullied. She died in hospital several days later.

Cenerini was in junior high at the time and says the Parsons case was very prominent in her community and was "monumental" for discussions about mental health.

She said she understands this was a difficult situation and does not blame the school. But she said she thinks a re-evaluation is needed.

"I was kind of disappointed that the reactions haven't as much changed," said Cenerini. "We would think that we've done this before, we should know how to treat it better now.

"I think that we need to relook at how we deal with these situations. Unfortunately, it's something we have to prepare for."


Where to get help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (Phone), 45645 (Text), crisisservicescanada.ca (Chat)

In French: Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (Phone), Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre

If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them about it, says the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention. 

Here are some warning signs: 

  • Suicidal thoughts.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Purposelessness.
  • Anxiety.
  • Feeling trapped.
  • Hopelessness and helplessness.
  • Withdrawal.
  • Anger.
  • Recklessness.
  • Mood changes.

About the Author

Danielle d'Entremont

Reporter/Editor

Danielle d’Entremont is a reporter based in Halifax. She previously worked for CBC Toronto and is happy as a clam to be back in her hometown. She’s always fishing for interesting stories. Send your story to her at danielle.dentremont@cbc.ca.

with files from Frances Willick