Bellwood-Antis valedictorian explains why she skipped commencement

It wasn’t about her.

She doesn’t want it to be.

Kerri Little feels that Bellwood-Antis School District suffered from what she said is a widespread issue — school bullying enabled by alleged turn-a-blind-eye administrations. Little, the school’s 2016 valedictorian, wanted to use her June 2 valedictorian speech to discuss what she feels are issues at the school district.

She is quick to say she had mostly good experiences, that “we have a lot of a good people in our community, we do bond, we have great things happening at school.”

But her speech would have touched on cases of bullying, in which she wouldn’t identify anyone. She would have called out school administration for what she felt was a lack of a response to bullying. She hoped that her speech would get the community to talk, to bring out of the shadows something that she said made the high school experience “awful” for some students.

Little never wrote that speech.

She instead claims that some staff and faculty, including Bellwood-Antis High School Principal Richard W. Schreier, directed her to write a “traditional” speech for their pre-graduation approval. The consequence, she claims, for veering off the speech would be her microphone being turned off and police escorting her from the ceremony.

The school district did not respond to requests for comment.

So, she agreed, but with a plan.

Little said she wrote a speech, turned it in a week before commencement and got approval.

“They wanted something normally in a valedictorian’s speech,” she said. “They wanted me to thank people, to bring up good memories and give an overall good speech that they liked. I wrote it knowing what I was going to do. I was going to keep up the facade of attending graduation. I wrote a speech in 20 minutes that said ‘it’s been great, and we’ve all stuck together,’ but that wouldn’t be the truth.”

Little led on school administrators for more than a month, attended graduation practice and didn’t give notice of her absence until minutes before commencement.

“We found out just a few minutes before that she was not going to attend. Apparently she had some personal issues that she didn’t feel it would be appropriate to be at graduation,” Bellwood-Antis Superintendent Thomas McInroy told the Altoona Mirror. “We are disappointed that we found out at such a late minute and that she didn’t let us know further ahead of time.”

Little had a reason.

“I didn’t want them to have time to prepare excuses, so I waited,” she said.

The result has been a firestorm of media coverage and a split in reactions.

“There are people who don’t care, some people who hate me for what I did and some messaging me (on Facebook) and telling me their stories,” Little said. “I don’t regret it. If I can help one person, it’s worth it.”

Widespread coverage, she said, wasn’t her intention.

It has surprised her that people outside of the school district’s perimeters, a tiny community between Altoona and State College, are interested in her decision to skip a graduation for 85 students.

“I was thinking about Bellwood,” Little said. “I have friends in other school districts nearby and maybe they’d hear about it. I’m not thankful that it’s gone viral. I just wanted to include a direct address for people not to bully or not to put others down, to change for the better.”

Shawn Annarelli: 814-235-3928, @Shawn_Annarelli