The graduation ceremony at a charter school in Detroit was disrupted when the two top students in the school used their addresses to criticize the school for “an inferior education and a culture of secrecy.”

The school said the students being used by adults with an agenda, which is an odd and condescending thing to say about your best students.

The pair accused Universal Academy on Detroit’s west side of churning substitute teachers through their classrooms, backing out of promised benefits, firing teachers who advocated for kids and silencing students and parents who speak out.

CEO Nawal Hamadeh ordered the microphone silenced during the second speech but by then, the point had been made, said Tuhfa Kasem, 17, whose speech was cut short.

“She asked for me to be escorted out but the parents had my back,” Kasem said. “The cops came in. The parents were like ‘you’re not going to touch her….’ “

A YouTube video of the scene took the speech to a much larger crowd than the one that was packed into the school gymnasium earlier this month.

“I’m happy that it raised the awareness that it did,” Kasem said.

Kasem’s speech followed a shorter speech by Zainab Altalaqani, a co-salutatorian and friend. The girls accuse the school of using long-term substitute teachers and other means to save money at the expense of the education of the children…

One of the teachers, Phillip Leslie, heard about the girls’ criticisms of his former employer and later posted a video of the graduation ceremony online.

“The school had gotten what we perceived as progressively worse,” he said. “We had raised a number of concerns with the principal. When they lost teachers, they would use paraprofessionals as substitutes.”

Leslie and some of his colleagues were fired, they said, for attending a board meeting at the school to complain.

They filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board and ultimately settled for lost wages and reversal of their firings, so they wouldn’t be hamstrung when they sought work at other schools. 

“They were the best teachers in the school,” said Sara Saleh, 18, who graduated last year and now attends Wayne State. “Most of the staff members that I’ve spoken with had complained about the same things.”

The school caters to a student population that includes many immigrant children, including those from Yemen and Iraq, who need additional help learning English. Saleh said her English teacher last year was a certified math teacher, who learned English as a second language herself and couldn’t help students.

See an interview with one of the students here.