Student with Mexican/U.S. flag sash takes graduation quest to court
Student garb signaling future military service and Pacific Islander or Native American tribal regalia is welcome at Grand Valley High School graduations but not a sash bearing the Mexican and U.S. national flags, according to a lawsuit in Denver’s U.S. District Court.
Naomi Peña Villasano, 18 — denied her requests to wear the sash honoring both her countries at all levels of the school district — turned to her last option this week, filing an injunction to secure what her attorneys and others call her First Amendment right to wear the sash while she walks the stage to receive her diploma.
Due to walk on Saturday morning, she filed her case in Denver’s U.S. District Court against the Garfield County School District 16, school board President Lynn Shore, Vice President Kimberly Whelan, Secretary Vincent Tomasulo, Director Stacy McGruder, Director Keith Gronewoller, district Superintendent Jennifer Baugh, and Grand Valley Principal Kelly McCormick.
The suit alleges the defendants violated Peña Villasano’s right to freedom of speech under the First and 14th amendments, as well as the Colorado Constitution, plus her right to wear the flag of the United States on her person. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund along with Greenberg Traurig LLC law firm are representing her.
Villasano’s sash is decorated with the American flag on one side and the Mexican flag on the other with “Class of 2023” embroidered down the American flag. Her family is from Mexico, and she grew up in the Western Slope.
After a months of back and forth with school and district administrators, she was told she would not be permitted to wear the sash at graduation.
Alex Sanchez, president of Voces Unidas, said in a statement that Garfield 16 and Grand Valley High School cannot prevent Villasano from graduating while wearing a multicultural stole on Saturday.
“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 this weekend’s Grand Valley High School commencement ceremony,” Sanchez said.
According to the filing, Superintendent Baugh said, “The district practice has been not to allow the display of flags because that would open the door to a student wearing a Confederate flag pin or another flag that would cause offense.” Thus, she explained, “the district does not permit the wearing of flags at graduation, including, for example, a Ukrainian flag pin.”
There is no mention of graduation dress code rules in the Grand Valley student handbook, and according to the court filing, enforcement of multicultural garb worn at graduation ceremonies has been spotty over the years and in conflict with directives from current administration.
The district is 24% Hispanic-identifying, according to census data.
In email, the suit alleges the following:
“Superintendent Baugh stated that graduating students may wear ‘any regalia that is part of a Native American or Pacific Islander tribe.’
“b. Superintendent Baugh also stated that students may wear regalia recognizing ‘going into a military service.’
“c. Superintendent Baugh also stated that students may wear regalia ‘that represent membership to [sic] a nationally recognized organization such as National Honors Society, 4H, JROTC, etc. that operate in high schools across the country.’
“d. Superintendent Baugh also stated that students may wear regalia that ‘represent other distinctions such as class rank, valedictorian, and salutatorian.'”
“This court filing by a Latina high school student on the eve of her own high school graduation is further evidence of the need to pass legislation clarifying that all students have the right to wear cultural regalia at any public graduation ceremony,” Sànchez said in his statement. “Voces Unidas has already begun working with state lawmakers to pass such legislation in 2024, including creating an online petition that we encourage anyone who believes in the First Amendment to sign.”
Garfield County School District 16 Public Information and Grants Coordinator Nicole Loschke said the district has no comment on pending litigation.
A hearing is set for 10:30 a.m. on Friday, according to Sandra Hernandez, vice president for communication at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
The lawsuit claims the defendants are violating Villasano’s free speech rights and her state right to display the U.S. flag on her person.
“We live in an age of increasing threats to the First Amendment in public schools,” Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel, said to The Denver Post on Thursday. “Here, the district has wrongly concluded that it is allowed to discriminate against certain students and their heritage, while honoring that of other students; our Constitution does not permit such obvious discrimination.”
Last week, Villasano testified before the school board, asking them to allow her to wear her sash to graduation.
“I’m a 200 percenter — 100% American and 100% Mexican,” Peña Villasano said during her testimony. “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.”
At the end of the school board meeting, school board President Shore declared the district’s rules would be enforced at graduation.
The lawsuit asks the court to declare that the defendants are violating Villasao’s right to free speech in denying her the ability to wear her sash and to ensure that she is allowed to wear her sash to graduation on Saturday.