Naomi Peña Villasano sues school district that wouldn’t let her wear Mexican flag sash at graduation

A Western Slope student whose high school and district told her she could not wear a Mexican American sash to her graduation ceremony is suing the school district, school board members, superintendent and principal in federal court.

Naomi Peña Villasano, 18, sued Garfield County School District 16, five school board members, superintendent Jennifer Baugh and Grand Valley High School principal Kelly McCormick on Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund along with Greenberg Traurig, LLC law firm are taking up Peña Villasano’s case.

The lawsuit claims the defendants are violating Peña Villasano’s free speech rights and her state right to display the U.S. flag on her person.

Baugh told The Denver Post that Garfield County School District 16 does not have a comment regarding the pending litigation.

“We live in an age of increasing threats to the First Amendment in public schools,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel.  “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.”

Honors student Peña Villasano was excited to wear a sash gifted by her brother when she walked across the stage to receive her high school diploma on Saturday. The sash features a depiction of the Mexican flag on one side and the American flag on the other, representing Peña Villasano’s pride to be an American while honoring her family’s Mexican roots.

When a teacher overheard her talking about the sash, the lawsuit said the teacher told Peña Villasano her sash would not be allowed at the ceremony.

When Peña Villasano went to ask the principal if she could wear the sash to graduation, the principal’s secretary looked at a photo of the sash and told Peña Villasano it would “open too many doors,” according to the lawsuit.

Principal McCormick confirmed Peña Villasano could not wear her Mexican American sash at graduation and acknowledged there was no written school or district policy regarding regalia worn on or over the graduation gown, the lawsuit said.

When Peña Villasano’s sister-in-law contacted Baugh about the issue, Baugh told her graduating students may wear any regalia belonging to a Native American or Pacific Islander tribe or recognizing going into military service, the lawsuit said.

“Superintendent Baugh also stated that 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,” the lawsuit read. “Thus, Superintendent Baugh explained, the District does not permit the wearing of flags at graduation, including, for example, a Ukrainian flag pin.”

Baugh allegedly acknowledged some students have worn cultural regalia to graduations such as leis made out of dollar bills but that the ACLU advocated for Native Americans and Pacific Islanders to wear cultural regalia and leis made of money signified good luck for Pacific Islanders, the lawsuit said.

Last week, Peña 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, President of the Garfield County School District 16 Board of Education Lynn Shore said the district’s rules regarding regalia would be enforced at the graduation.

Shore and Baugh acknowledged in a meeting with Peña Villasano that there is no written policy prohibiting Naomi from wearing her sash, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare that the defendants are violating Peña Villasao’s right to free speech in denying her the ability to wear her sash and to ensure that Peña Villasano is allowed to wear her sash to graduation on Saturday.

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