A high school student sued her school over the dress code after she was refused permission to wear a Mexican and American flag sash to her graduation.
Naomi Peña Villasano claimed she was discriminated against by her school district for wanting to express her different cultural heritage.
“I’m 200 percent American and 100 percent Mexican,” she said at a school board meeting in Western Slope, Colorado.
She applied for a restraining order that would have allowed her to wear the sash at her graduation on Saturday because her case against the county would not have been resolved in a timely manner.
However, Judge Nina Y. Wang ruled that wearing a sash during a graduation ceremony falls under school-sponsored speech and not a student’s private speech.
This means that “the school district may, in its sole discretion, limit this speech in the interests of the type of graduation it wishes to deliver,” Wang wrote.
Hollu Ortiz, an attorney representing Garfield County School District 16, argued that allowing Peña Villasano to display both the U.S. and Mexican flags “could open the door to offensive material.”
Peña Villasano’s attorneys argued that graduates would be allowed to wear Native American insignia, but Ortiz said insignia was “categorically different” than wearing a country’s flag.
But the district didn’t want to stop Peña Villasano from speaking out, and Ortiz said she could decorate her cap with the flags or wear the sash after the ceremony.
But “she has no right to put it the way she wants,” Ortiz said.
Peña Villasano’s school, Grand Valley High School, still allowed the graduate to walk across the stage and receive her diploma at the graduation ceremony.
Superintendent Jennifer Baugh previously warned her that wearing the sash would disqualify her from the ceremony.
However, Peña Villasano wore it anyway – concealed by a thicker, yellow sash.
“Always stand up for what you believe in,” she told the postal independent. “Just like my graduation quote.”
Alex Sanchez, executive director of Latino rights organization Voces Unidas, who attended the ceremony in support of Peña Villasano, said she’s glad the school district “did the right thing” and didn’t stop Peña Villasano from graduating.
However, not everyone at the ceremony was happy about the amount of attention Peña Villasano received for her protest.
Several reporters and photographers focused on the graduate before, during and after the ceremony, leaving some of the other 76 graduates upset that it spoiled their special day.
“I think it’s unfair that she can sit there and make a huge scene that affects everyone else,” said fellow student Tiara Walker Colorado Sun.
Unable to carry a bouquet given to her by her boyfriend’s family, Walker said the situation was “very disappointing to me.”
She claimed that she could have worn the lei in years past, but the uproar caused by Peña Villasano prompted the school district to crack down on dress adornments that were previously allowed.
This affected Molly Rhinaman, who received a gold sash for completing college courses from Colorado Mountain College while still in high school.
Due to the harsh measures, she could not wear the sash at the graduation ceremony.
“I’m the only one in the class with a CMC degree and I didn’t have it to show,” she said. “Also, I volunteered 230 hours at 4-H and couldn’t wear the cords for it.”
According to Rhinaman, many students initially supported Peña Villasano’s fight to wear her sash, but by the end it was gone.
Even some of the 25 students with Hispanic surnames did not support Peña Villasano, Rhinaman said.
“I think the thing with Naomi just went too far,” she said.
Peña Villasano also admitted their fight marred their degree.
“I’ve had to focus on standing up for my rights over the past month rather than celebrating my upcoming graduation,” she said.
Lynn Shore, school board president, said in a news release that the district did not have enough time to properly consider changes to its rules and traditions before the conclusion.
“Because the questions raised are valid and it is high time to review the rules and traditions, they will be reviewed in the 2023-24 school year,” she said.
The US Sun has reached out to Grand Valley High School for comment.