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Amsterdam High graduate still upset about censored speech

Salutatorian had to alter remarks

Rebekah Izzo
Rebekah Izzo
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Read Amsterdam High School salutatorian Rebekah Izzo's profile in The Gazette's special Class of 2014 section at

— The typical high school graduation speech is equal parts memories of the past and hopes for the future. So when Amsterdam High School salutatorian Rebekah Izzo turned in her remarks to school officials, red flags were quickly raised.

Izzo, a young woman who has strong Christian beliefs, included a verse from the Bible and some strong religious rhetoric in her original speech that caught the eye of the school’s principal, David Ziskin.

“Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man,” reads the Biblical verse. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”

The school reviews all graduation speeches before allowing students to read them, and Izzo said officials forced her to remove parts of her speech in which she shared personal religious messages with both her fellow students and the audience at graduation.

“Instead of saying ‘Put your trust in God,’ they wanted me to say something like ‘I put my trust in God,’ ” she said.

The 18-year old Amsterdam resident began her speech, which is posted on YouTube, by saying: “This is not my original speech . . . because it contained a personal message to each individual here of what God can do in your own life.”

She was disappointed she had to remove those parts of her speech.

“I worked really hard to become the salutatorian and to reach that stage,” she said.

After looking at the speech, Ziskin decided to turn it over to Greater Amsterdam School District Superintendent Thomas Perillo, according to Perillo. Ziskin could not be reached for comment.

Perillo and school district attorneys poured over the language in the speech extensively — Perillo said they wanted to make sure the speech could not be considered proselytizing and in no way favored one religion over another.

“It is the district’s responsibility to make sure a speech at graduation does not favor one religion,” Perillo said.

He concluded the Bible verse and a few other parts of the speech were indeed proselytizing and told Izzo to take them out.

Melanie Trimble, Capital Region chapter director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, suspected the district actually made Izzo remove the verse because it cannot appear to be endorsing her religious viewpoints.

“It is clear to me, after watching the speech, these were her own views and that the district did not want to appear as if they are endorsing them,” Trimble said.

Perillo said students at the high school still have broad freedom of speech, but they cannot use a public gathering such as a graduation to advocate their personal religious beliefs.

Izzo, however, said she thinks the district was being “nitpicky.”

“The fact that parts of my speech were removed shows the direction our country is headed in,” she said. “We are losing the rights to voice our opinions, and our rights are diminishing every day. People should be able to decide whether they want to believe in what I am saying or not.”

She equated the school district’s decision to remove parts of her speech to the its mandatory curriculum, which, she said, forced her to sit in science classes where the theory of evolution was taught and the idea that Adam and Eve were the first humans to walk the Earth was refuted.

“I had to sit through those classes, even though I didn’t want to,” she said. “After taking the classes, I had to make up my mind and decide what to believe in.”

As for Izzo’s plans after high school, she will attend the Belanger School of Nursing in Schenectady this fall and plans to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing while specializing in maternity care or pediatrics.

“I am really excited to begin the next phase of my life and to continue to speak out for what I believe in,” Izzo said.

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July 8, 2014
6:21 a.m.

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Shame on the Amsterdam School District.

July 8, 2014
6:22 a.m.

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Good for her. God has great things in store for her.

July 8, 2014
9:18 a.m.

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First off congratulations Rebekah, I think the school is a perfect example of church vs. state.. It is sad to think that this country wants to remove God out of all that we do. And that is why the country is in the shape it is in. Killings/Shootings everywhere. Why is it when there is a tragedy in a school or anywhere we all lean on God, But when someone wants to give Thanks to God for helping them through there school work, Or to help them through there future plans it is wrong. Amsterdam and its school need all the help they can get and God is the help they need....

July 8, 2014
9:21 a.m.

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We pledge allegiance to the flag (under GOD) is still recited in our schools. And we are one nation under God. Why does this country insist on taking away the positive behaviors of our youth? Let them be an influence on others that my need guidance. There are worse opinions that could be spread. All the bad that goes on in school and they focus on removing God from a speech. What ever happened to Freedom of Speech?

July 8, 2014
9:59 a.m.

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After reading the article and seeing their changes, I have to agree with the district. They just wanted her to say how her religion affected her, rather than her telling the graduates they needed to follow her religion. I think the biggest mistake of the school district was choosing a salutatorian who openly rejects proven science like evolution. No student of mine would receive a passing grade in science class if they couldn't understand something as basic as that.

As far as some of the other comments here, it's mind-blowing how little people understand America. I'll go through them one-by-one.

Pro-tech: There is not "Killings/Shootings everywhere." I looked all over my house, couldn't find a single killing or shooting. Not even in the couch cushions where things tend to hide. We do not "all lean on God". In fact, I barely know anyone who does. We've moved past that. And if you read the article, the school district said that if Rebekah wanted to give "thanks to God", she could. She just couldn't preach that the graduating class do the same thing. The district made the right choice.

Angelo: It's well-past time to go back to the original pledge of allegiance before the "under god" was added out of fears of communism in the 1950's. As far as "worse opinions that could be spread"… those would have been edited out as well. Freedom of Speech and the first amendment is alive and well, that's why we're able to read this article. You do understand that Freedom of Speech has nothing to do with salutatorian speeches, right?

July 8, 2014
2:39 p.m.

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Amsterdam School District is in my opinion very wrong. This district did not make a mistake choosing this young lady as salutatorian. However, she does seem to have a lot to teach several people one thing being, picking at incidentials.

July 8, 2014
7:17 p.m.

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Replace "God" with "Allah".
Now how do we all feel?

July 12, 2014
9:57 p.m.

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It's wonderful to see a young person so committed to her convictions. What a wonderful role model she is to all those floundering thru life with no purpose or direction. She should have been allowed to give her speech in her own words. It's up to her audience to decide what to believe. Congratulations Rebekah !

August 15, 2014
9:55 p.m.

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Wow! What arrogant, idiotic arguments dan. Evolution is not proven nor will it ever be. It is called a theory and it is really not a theory at all according the the scientific definition. It is a lie foisted upon students. If you check statistics from the past 50 years, violent crime has indeed increased along with many other behaviors detrimental to society. The love of God compels us to treat each other as we would want to be treated, except we deny God in schools and the public arena and don't want even His name mentioned. What is so fearful about mentioning God that we have to make every effort to expunge Him from society? And as for you ChuckD, I'm sick of hearing this nonsensical "argument" for excluding God. We are in America, a Christian nation, evidenced by our founding documents and many of the writings of our founding fathers, but they are not taught in school either. People who come to America from other countries who worship Allah came by choice and have no business trying to change our country into something else. We welcome other religions, but not so they can deny our practice of Christianity. If we weren't a Christian nation we would be like all others and then there would be no place on earth to run to when evil strikes and no one to help when disaster comes. Congratulations Rebekah! Thank you for your courage. We may all need such courage ..Christians are the most persecuted of all faiths...and that IS a fact!

August 16, 2014
12:55 a.m.

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