Nebraska State Education Association President Jenni Benson sounded off on Sen. Ben Sasse’s Saturday commencement address to Fremont High School’s graduating class.
She said the address, which has since garnered national attention for the senator’s remarks, was disappointing and missed the mark. Sasse’s commencement address included shots at the health of students and recommended that students don’t major in psychology in college.
Sasse also attempted to minimize the fact that graduates were forced to celebrate their graduation from home. He used larger-scale events such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, news of “murder hornets” making their way into the U.S. and a newly discovered black hole located in a solar system visible to the naked eye as more important issues, saying virtual graduation isn’t a “top-100 problem.”
The FHS graduate and former Midland University president then shifted to China, accusing the country of a failure to contain and accurately report the severity of the virus.
“We’re going to have to have a serious reckoning with the thugs in China who let this mess spiral out of control by lying about it,” he said during the pre-recorded speech on Saturday.
Bensen said she’s received complaints and feedback from people across the state voicing their disappointment in the senator’s speech.
“I really think we need to focus on the fact that this should have been a non-partisan issue,” she said.
She said the speech should have been an uplifting one, specifically for the Fremont graduates who have gone through a major flood and a pandemic.
“We know these kids have been through quite a bit that is beyond their control as children,” Bensen said. “The speech did nothing to raise them up as citizens going into this world. People were very concerned about the message that it was sending to the graduates, as well as the message being sent to everyone else regarding mental health issues, race relations, teachers in general. It was all disappointing.”
Sasse spokesman James Wegmann said Sasse’s remarks were meant to be a joke and that he was proud of the 2020 graduates.
“Like he said in the video greeting, Ben’s proud of each of the graduates — and he believes their generation is tough enough to help lead us through the bumpy economic times ahead,” he said in a statement. “It’s ridiculous that some politically addicted folks are complaining about Ben calling out China in a joke. He’s said this for months, because it’s true: The Chinese Communist Party’s coronavirus coverup wasted time that could have contained the spread — those lies cost innocent lives in China and around the world. Pretending graduates are too fragile to hear the truth is silly.”
Bensen said she believed the FPS’s school board has a responsibility to further investigate who gave the video the green light.
“I believe that’s the school board’s responsibility,” she said. “... We expect that out of our professionals, so I’m not sure what happened but I think the board needs to find out what happened.”
Late Sunday night, FPS released a statement addressing Sasse’s comments during the ceremony. The school didn’t publicly apologize for the statements made by the senator. Instead, it congratulated the graduating class and made clear the statements made by speakers had no connection to the district.
“Requests were made for commencement speeches from our local Nebraska District 15 State Senator Lynne Walz and from our current United States Senator, former FHS graduate, and former Midland University President, Ben Sasse,” Superintendent Mark Shepard and board president Sandi Proskovec said in a joint statement. “Both provided speeches to be included in the online celebration. The district does not edit or censor guest speakers.”
Bensen said Sasse should give a public apology to the graduating class for his remarks.
“We always teach kids that if you do something and it isn’t received in the manner that you thought, you should always go back and say sorry and make amends because that’s what we teach our students to do,” she said. “Our audience was children. They were graduating from high school but they’re children entering the adult world. They should have been treated respectfully.”
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