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Naomi Peña Villasano, a senior graduating from Grand Valley High School in Parachute, stands for a portrait wearing her Mexican-American sarape at the state Capitol building in Denver on Friday, May 5, 2023. 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 federal judge denied a request for a temporary restraining order Friday evening that would have allowed a Western Slope student to wear a sash decorated with symbols from the Mexican and American flags during her graduation ceremony after school officials told her she couldn’t.

Attorneys for Naomi Peña Villasano filed the request to prohibit the Garfield County School District from enforcing the ban and let Peña Villasano walk across the stage to receive her diploma Saturday from Grand Valley High School in Parachute. 

But U.S. District Court Judge Nina Wang said in her ruling that graduation regalia is considered “school-sponsored speech” and the school district is permitted to restrict the garb “as it sees fit in the interest of the kind of graduation it would like to hold.” 

Regalia representing other heritages, such as a money leis or other traditional items to represent Native American students’ culture, are only permitted under a state law signed earlier this month, she said. 

During a court hearing Friday morning, Kenneth Parreno, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, argued that the school district has “impermissibly restricted” Peña Villasano’s freedom of speech by denying her the ability to express her pride for her Mexican roots, while allowing students to represent other heritages during previous graduation ceremonies. 

Attorney Holly Eileen Ortiz, representing the school district, said school officials are not trying to restrict her from displaying her cultural heritage, but she cannot express it in any way she chooses. Peña Villasano is allowed to display her heritage on her cap, or by wearing her sash before or after the ceremony, Ortiz said. 

The district has an interest in presenting unity among the graduating class, Ortiz said in court. 

Student-decorated caps are a longstanding tradition within the district, whereas the gowns are a uniform regulated by the school, she said. 

In court documents filed Thursday evening, attorneys for the school district argued that its rules against students wearing sashes during the graduation ceremony are grounded in its interest “in avoiding opening doors to speech that could offend others during a solemn, important ceremony in many families’ lives.”

The court documents said granting Peña Villasano’s request less than 24 hours before graduation “would diminish the experiences of the class of 2023 and impinge upon the community’s local control of the graduation ceremony.”

The judge’s order comes two days after Peña Villasano filed a lawsuit accusing district officials of allowing other students to wear sashes honoring their heritage but barring her from wearing one that represents her Mexican roots and American upbringing.

Peña Villasano, an honors student, was looking forward to wearing the sash, known as a serape, that her older brother had given her as a graduation gift. 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 America’s. “Class of 2023” is also embroidered on the sash. 

But school officials told her she would not be able to graduate if she was wearing the sash. Superintendent Jennifer Baugh told Peña Villasano’s sister-in-law 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,” according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday. 

According to the lawsuit, Baugh and Board of Education member Lynn Shore told Peña Villasano that the district does not have any written policy barring her from wearing the sash. 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. 

Olivia Prentzel

Olivia Prentzel is a general assignment writer for The Colorado Sun. Email: