Hazen Union Opening Day Assembly Sparks Controversy

by Doug McClure

HARDWICK – On the first day of school at Hazen Union, Principal Dr. Jason Di Giulio brought the students together for an assembly, a “celebration” after nearly two years of isolation and lock-down. As part of the assembly, Principal Di Giulio shared his own story to explain why community was important to him. By some accounts, it did not go well. The reaction on social media was particularly negative.

What exactly Di Giulio said is not documented. To date, no video of the assembly has surfaced. A student posted on Facebook that they saw no phones out recording, and Di Giulio said he was reading off of notes and unscripted. 

According to several students, the first part of Di Guilio’s remarks that some people took issue with was the manner in which Di Giulio discussed the Constitutionally protected right to protest, which he said he valued. Di Giulio said that the right to protest includes the right to burn the American flag, though he did not say people should do so. According to one student, Di Giulio said that the right for people to do so was exactly what he fought for as a soldier. The U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1989 that it was a Constitutionally protected right under the First Amendment to burn the American flag. 

Dr. Di Giulio said in a post-assembly, school-wide email that his words “did not land how I intended them to land.” 

In that email, he wrote that “[a]s we strive to building agency and the power to ‘own’ their work and process in students, I explained that many say the Pledge with their hands on their hearts, and others would make different choices. I wanted the people in the room to understand that there were many forms of protest related to our flag. I spoke about some folks having their hands on their hearts, others stood with their fists in the air, and others knelt. Some, I said, even have chosen to burn the flag. I intended that they would understand that the nation represented by that flag ensures their right to protest and express, but it doesn’t make all of those choices acceptable. As I noted in the assembly, and I believe still, the flag and its colors represent a shared sense of community — courage, unity, and a purity of promise. I wore that flag on my arm and I believe in it and its promise.”

Dr. Di Giulio enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1991 and served for over twelve years. He worked to become a commissioned officer and rose to the rank of company commander in 2001. He was assigned to train another country’s army to meet NATO standards.

A number of students were clear about what they believed the real issue was: Dr. Di Giulio identifies as LGBTQ. The context in which he presented that fact to the students during the assembly, according to multiple students interviewed, was that he felt that despite his service as a soldier, the military did not accept him.

A handful of people reacted strongly on Hazen Union’s Facebook page, based on what was recounted by at least one student who was at the assembly. The initial message was posted by Monica Billings. Billings posted that “[Di Giulio] rattled off his sexual orientation and poor treatment by the US military as his reasoning for his Anti-American remarks.” She described his comments as “disgusting” and accused Di Giulio of “manipulating our children into having the same bias mindset.”

In his post-assembly email, Di Giulio said that he was trying to do exactly the opposite. Di Giulio wrote in the post-assembly email that “[w]e learned much about the power of story last year, and I had hoped that my story and adversities would help show that through struggles, we can reach higher places.”

One student said that “he did say it was okay to burn the flag in a form of protest, which kind of drove me crazy,” but concluded that “I think it was also a ton of people didn’t like that someone who was on the LGBTQ+ spectrum was running the school.”

The negative comments on Facebook from multiple people took issue with what Di Giulio reportedly said. One read: “Wait, what? Had to throw in sexual orientation?? Are you serious? Yes, needs to find a new job. NOT IN OUR COMMUNITY!!!”

Some parents and community members came to Di Giulio’s defense. Some responded with positive words to the email Di Giulio sent out. One person thanked Dr. Di Giulio for “teaching what freedom in America is.” 

None of the interviewed students said they initially felt that there was anything out of order about Dr. Di Giulio’s assembly. Most, in fact, did not even consider it provocative or inspirational, offering at first only wording along the lines of “It was okay.”