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Naomi Peña Villasano, a senior graduating from Grand Valley High School in Parachute, shows her Mexican-American sarape at the state Capitol building in Denver on Friday, May 5. Peña Villasano’s school is threatening to not let her walk if she wears the sash, which is adorned with the Mexican flag in addition to the American flag. (Eli Imadali, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A Colorado student is suing her high school and school district in federal court after school officials told her she cannot wear a sash composed of symbols from the American and Mexican flags during her graduation ceremony because it could open the doors to other, possibly offensive, graduation gown decorations such as Nazi symbols or Confederate flags. 

Naomi Peña Villasano, 18, accused the Garfield County school officials of allowing other students to wear sashes honoring their heritage but barring her from wearing one that represents hers as she walks across the stage to receive her diploma Saturday in Parachute, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court of Colorado. 

Garfield County School District 16, five board of education members, district superintendent Jennifer Baugh and Grand Valley High School principal Kelly McCormick are named as defendants. 

Naomi Peña Villasano. (Eli Imadali, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The lawsuit claims district officials are violating Peña Villasano’s free speech rights after they told her she will not be able to graduate if she is wearing her sash. It asks a judge to order district officials to allow her to wear the sash during her graduation ceremony. 

Baugh declined to comment, citing pending litigation.  

The honors student, whose parents immigrated from Mexico before she was born and who lives and goes to school in an area that is one-third Latino, was looking forward to wearing the sash to represent her culture and ancestors, as well as her identity as a Mexican American, according to the lawsuit.

The strip of cloth is red, green and white on one end — representing Mexico’s flag — and red, white and blue on the other, to represent her American upbringing. “Class of 2023” is also embroidered on the sash, a graduation gift from her older brother. 

Peña Villasano was telling a fellow student about her sash, known as a serape, in class when a teacher overheard and told her she wasn’t allowed to wear it during the graduation ceremony, the lawsuit stated. When she went to the principal’s office to ask if she could wear it, showing a picture of the sash, the principal’s secretary said it would “open too many doors,” if she was permitted to wear it. 

The following day, McCormick said she could not wear the sash but acknowledged there was no written school or district policy about regalia worn on or over graduation gowns, the lawsuit states. 

In an email with Peña Villasano’s sister-in-law, Superintendent Baugh said students can wear any regalia that is part of a Native American or Pacific Islander tribe or regalia recognizing that a student is entering military service, according to the lawsuit. Students can also wear regalia representing honors societies or a student’s class rank, like valedictorian.

But Baugh also said it has been the district’s practice to ban flags on graduation regalia “because that would open the door to a student wearing a Confederate flag pin or another flag that would cause offense,” the lawsuit stated.

“Thus, Superintendent Baugh explained, the district does not permit the wearing of flags at graduation, including, for example, a Ukrainian flag pin.”

Naomi Peña Villasano, center, and mother Ana Villasano, right, listen during session on the House Floor at the state Capitol building before the session begins in Denver on Friday, May 5, 2023. Peña Villasano, a senior graduating from Grand Valley High School in Parachute, was invited to the Capitol by members of the Colorado Democratic Latino Caucus and non-profit Voces Unidas de las Montañas after they heard her school is threatening to not let her walk if she wears a sarape sash adorned with the Mexican flag, in addition to the American flag. (Eli Imadali, Special to The Colorado Sun)

During a meeting with Peña Villasano, Baugh and Board of Education member Lynn Shore confirmed there is no written policy barring Peña Villasano from wearing the sash, according to the lawsuit. Baugh also acknowledged that the district has allowed students to wear other forms of cultural regalia, like leis made from money, and that the ACLU has advocated for Native Americans and Pacific Islanders to wear such regalia.

Last week, Peña Villasano testified during a Board of Education meeting, asking its members to allow her to wear the sash. 

“I’m a 200 percenter — 100% American and 100% Mexican. I was born in the United States but my parents are Mexican immigrants who came here for a better life. … They have sacrificed and provided for me in so many ways that I am so beyond grateful for. And also my brothers. I’m proud of who I am and the opportunities that I have,” she testified, according to the lawsuit.

At the end of the meeting, Shore said the district could enforce the rules regarding regalia for Saturday’s graduation ceremony. 

Legislation signed into law earlier this month protects Native American students’ rights to wear regalia during high school and college graduation ceremonies.

Alex Sánchez, CEO and president of Voces Unidas, said Peña Villasano’s lawsuit provides further evidence that legislation is needed to allow students to wear cultural regalia during graduation ceremonies. 

“Although we are disappointed that it has come to this, we are 100% behind Naomi and her legal efforts to prevent Garfield County School District 16 from trampling on her First Amendment right to celebrate her cultural heritage” at graduation, Sánchez said in a statement Thursday.

Voces Unidas is working with lawmakers to pass such legislation in 2024, he said. 

Peña Villasano wore her sash to the state Capitol earlier this month to bring awareness to the issue.

“I am not just fighting for this for myself and for the Mexican culture,” she previously told The Colorado Sun. “I want everyone else to be able to freely express their pride in their culture.”

Olivia Prentzel covers breaking news and a wide range of other important issues impacting Coloradans for The Colorado Sun, where she has been a staff writer since 2021. At The Sun, she has covered wildfires, criminal justice, the environment,...