Colorado student told she can’t wear Mexican flag sash at graduation

Naomi X. Peña Villasano felt proud as she admired the graduation stole hanging around her neck, with one half designed to look like the American flag, the other like the Mexican flag.

The 18-year-old Mexican-American from Colorado’s Western Slope said the sash captured her pride as an American while honoring her Mexican roots.

“My parents are immigrants,” Peña Villasano said Friday. “They migrated here for a better life.”

Peña Villasano couldn’t wait to wear the stole as she walks across the graduation stage at Grand Valley High School in Parachute on May 27. But officials from the school and Garfield County School District 16 told her she couldn’t wear the garment.

Peña Villasano said school administrators told her the Mexican flag could be seen as offensive. The student said the school is denying her First Amendment rights and barring her cultural representation.

“This issue was never about a flag from a specific country,” said Jennifer Baugh, Garfield County School District 16 superintendent. “The issue is that moving away from our rules opens the door to all manner of expression with graduation garb, which we believe would discourage the unification of our graduates and distract from the celebration of our students’ great academic accomplishments.”

In an email Baugh sent to Peña Villasano that the teen provided to The Denver Post, Baugh explained that she is Ukranian, but that if she wanted to wear something with a Ukranian flag on it to graduation, that wouldn’t be allowed.

“Then another student would be able to wear a Confederate flag because that student was from a Southern state,” Baugh wrote in the email. “To some people, the Confederate flag symbolizes much more than just the Confederacy at the time of the Civil War. If people get offended, we would not be able to tell that student that he/she couldn’t wear that pin because we cannot discriminate against that student, regardless of whether or not we agree or disagree with the symbolism.”

Peña Villasano contends the school has no written policies prohibiting the display of cultural flags or symbols.

When asked about that, Baugh said Grand Valley High School graduation regalia consists of a cap, gown and cords representing academic achievements, and that students are allowed to decorate their mortarboards — but that Garfield 16 emphasizes “traditional” regalia.

Peña Villasano wore the stole to the state Capitol on Friday for a meeting with Gov. Jared Polis about her situation.

Colorado legislators this week passed a bill requiring schools and school districts to allow students to wear and display traditional Native American regalia at their graduation ceremonies.

When Polis signed the bill, he wrote that “these types of First Amendment protections exist for all students who wish to display sacred symbols of faith or culture during a graduation ceremony that do not cause a substantial disturbance or materially interfere with the ceremony.”

“A Sikh student wearing a pagri, a Jewish student wearing a yarmulke, a Muslim student wearing a Hijab or a Christian student affixing a cross to their graduation gown are all examples of protected speech,” Polis wrote in his signing statement. “This legislation makes clear graduating students have First Amendment protections at their graduation ceremonies and further promotes a Colorado for all.”

During Peña Villasano’s time at the Capitol, she said she met with legislators to discuss expanding that bill next session to include allowing students of other cultures to wear regalia representing their heritage.

“My end goal is to not have any other student go through what I’ve gone through,” Peña Villasano said.

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