Graduate Honors Dual Heritage Despite Judge's Ruling

Court backed Colorado school district wanting to prohibit sash with Mexican, American flags
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted May 27, 2023 9:00 AM CDT
Updated May 29, 2023 4:07 PM CDT
Judge Rules on Student's Heritage Sash for Graduation
In this undated photo, Naomi Pena Villasano poses with a sash of both the Mexican and American flags that her school district barred her from wearing to her high school graduation ceremony.   (Daisy Jasmin Estrada Borja via AP)
UPDATE May 29, 2023 4:07 PM CDT

Although her school district told her not to, and a judge backed that decision up, a high school graduate wore a sash representing the flags of Mexico and the US to her commencement ceremony over the weekend. "Always stand up for what you believe in," Naomi Peña Villasano said in an interview, the AP reports. The sash was partly covered by another representing her involvement in a service organization. Despite the ruling, no one tried to prevent Peña Villasano from stepping onstage to accept the diploma she earned from Grand Valley High School.

May 27, 2023 9:00 AM CDT

A federal judge ruled Friday that a rural Colorado school district can bar a high school student from wearing a Mexican and American flag sash at her graduation this weekend after the student sued the school district. Judge Nina Y. Wang wrote that wearing a sash during a graduation ceremony falls under school-sponsored speech, not the student's private speech. Therefore, "the school district is permitted to restrict that speech as it sees fit in the interest of the kind of graduation it would like to hold," Wang wrote, per the AP. The ruling was over the student's request for a temporary restraining order, which would have allowed her to wear the sash on Saturday for graduation because the case wouldn't have resolved in time. Wang found that the student and her attorneys failed to sufficiently show they were likely to succeed, but a final ruling is still to come.

It's the latest dispute in the US about what kind of cultural graduation attire is allowed at commencement ceremonies, with many focusing on tribal regalia. Attorneys for Naomi Pena Villasano argued in a hearing Friday in Denver that the school district decision violates her free speech rights. They also said it's inconsistent for the district to allow Native American attire but not Pena Villasano's sash representing her heritage. The sash has the Mexican flag on one side and the United States flag on the other. "I'm a 200 percenter—100% American and 100% Mexican," she said at a recent school board meeting in Colorado's rural Western Slope. "The district is discriminating against the expression of different cultural heritages," said her attorney, Kenneth Parreno, from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, at Friday's hearing.

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An attorney representing Garfield County School District 16 countered that Native American regalia is required to be allowed in Colorado and is categorically different from wearing a country's flags. Permitting Pena Villasano to sport the US and Mexican flags as a sash, said Holly Ortiz, could open "the door to offensive material." Ortiz further stated that the district doesn't want to prevent Pena Villasano from expressing herself and that the graduate could adorn her cap with the flags or wear the sash before or after the ceremony. But "she doesn't have a right to express it in any way that she wants," Ortiz added. Wang sided with the district, finding that "the school district could freely permit one sash and prohibit another." This year, Colorado passed a law making it illegal to keep Native American students from donning such regalia. Nearly a dozen states have similar laws.

(More graduation stories.)

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