Grad with Mexican-American sash wears it without incident despite losing court case

Ray K. Erku
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
All this drama and Grand Valley High School senior Naomi Peña Villasano received her diploma with a smile and handshake Saturday.
ay K. Erku/Post Independent

She did ask well ahead of time, politely at every turn. She was told by her school principal and then district superintendent she couldn’t wear a Mexican-U.S. graduation sash. She pleaded with the school board, who also told her no. She went to U.S. District Court in Denver. The judge told her … no.

So what did she do? Grand Valley High School senior Naomi Peña Villasano walked across the stage with the sash her family put on her and received her diploma, with smiles all around. The sash that so offended authority in the run-up to commencement was slightly covered by a yellow one partially over it.

“Always stand up for what you believe in,” she said afterward. “Just like my senior quote.”

The result of all the kerfuffle was a shake of the hand and passage of her diploma to her, a knot of other graduates displaying Mexican/American colors on stage, and a host of other students expressing resentment about this controversy stealing some of the limelight from their big day. At least according to The Colorado Sun. All this because district authorities feared some triggering a la displays of the Confederate flag, according to their emails and reasoning in interviews with reporters.

In late April, Peña Villasano was warned by Superintendent Jennifer Baugh and Garfield 16 administration she’d be barred from Grand Valley’s graduation ceremony if she decided to wear the stole — adorned in Stars and Stripes on one end, the other, an eagle, a cactus and serpent symbolizing the flag of Mexico.

That stole was slightly covered around Peña Villasano’s neck by a thicker yellow sash Saturday. No administrators or teachers tried stopping her as she nabbed her diploma.

“I’m super excited,” she said. “I’m shocked, but I am so proud of myself and all the achievements I’ve had.”

Naomi Pena Villasano like that became just another happy grad ready for the next step in her life.

The past few weeks leading up to Grand Valley’s graduation ceremony were rife with controversy. In an email explaining why the district didn’t want Peña Villasano wearing the stole, Baugh said it could spur other students to wear whatever they wanted — such as a Confederate flag.

The comparison prompted Peña Villasano and others, like regional Latino advocacy group Voces Unidas, to visit the capitol in Denver and speak with legislators and Gov. Jared Polis on this matter.

They also made several public comments at a May 16 school board meeting, arguing the board should vote on creating a new policy allowing for national regalia to be worn at graduation. 

“This district believes there is not adequate time to properly consider changes to its rules and traditions prior to graduation so the current rules and traditions will be in effect and fully enforced,” Board president Lynn Shore said in a Friday news release. “Because the issues raised have merit and it is past time to review the rules and traditions these will be reviewed during the 2023/24 school year. 

Shore said those impacted including students, parents, staff, administration and the community will be invited to participate. 

“This will be done with the intent of assuring the 2024 graduation ceremony proceeds without controversy,” he said. 

Earlier this week, Peña Villasano filed a lawsuit against Garfield 16, alleging it violated her Freedom of Speech rights under the First and 14th amendments. 

On Friday — the day before her graduation — U.S. District Court Judge Nina Y. Wang denied the request.

“We are disappointed that the court was unwilling to use a temporary restraining order on the eve of her graduation to prevent the school district from actually violating her First Amendment rights,” Voces Unidas President and CEO Alex Sanchez told the Post Independent on Friday. “Again, the inconsistency in school rules around regalia is why Voces Unidas will push for more clarity in state law. We hope the school district does the right thing and not block a student from graduating simply because they are celebrating their culture.”

Senior Naomi Pena Villasano just before Grand Valley High School ‘s graduation ceremony Saturday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

The district stated in the release that when Peña Villasano was told she was not allowed to wear her sash to her graduation ceremony, but could decorate her cap. Grand Valley High School’s policy on graduation cap decorations can be found here

“Garfield 16’s decision to not allow a sash during the graduation ceremony was to protect the symbolic traditions that signify the graduates’ academic accomplishments and services to the community,” the release states. “Each stole, cord, or pin worn over the graduate’s gown symbolizes academic honors, school-sponsored activities, and military enlistment. It was our intention to protect these symbols as graduation is a time to celebrate student achievement.”

The district also stated in the release that when Peña Villasano presented her desire to wear her sash to graduation, district administration met with her  in an effort to work toward a solution. 

“After several meetings with Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Baugh, Grand Valley High School Principal Kelly McCormick, Ms. Pena Villasano and her family, and other supporting District staff, a plan was set in place,” the release states. “Ms. Pena Villasano was encouraged to address her concerns using democratic processes involving the senior class and the District Board of Education. Ms. Pena Villasano failed to accomplish these tasks.”


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