Student sues for wearing Mexican and American flag scarf upon graduating from high school

DENVER, AP — A federal judge is considering whether to let a Colorado high school student wear a Mexican and American flag sash at her graduation this weekend after the student sued the school district.

The case is the latest dispute in the United States over the type of cultural graduation attire allowed at opening ceremonies, with many focusing on tribal insignia.

Lawyers for Naomi Peña Villasano argued in a Friday hearing in Denver that the school district’s decision violated her free speech rights. They also said it was inconsistent for the district to allow Native American clothing, but not Peña Villasano’s belt representing his heritage. The belt has the Mexican flag on one side and the United States flag on the other.

“I’m 200% – 100% American and 100% Mexican,” she said at a recent school board meeting in Colorado’s rural West Slope.

“The district discriminates against the expression of different cultural heritages,” his attorney Kenneth Parreno, of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said during Friday’s hearing.

A lawyer representing Garfield County School District 16 countered that Native American regalia must be permitted in Colorado and is categorically different from wearing a country’s flags. Allowing Peña Villasano to wear the American and Mexican flags as a belt, Holly Ortiz said, could open “the door to offensive material.”

Ortiz further stated that the district does not want to prevent Peña Villasano from speaking out and that the graduate can adorn her cap with the flags or wear the sash before or after the ceremony.

But “she has no right to express it as she wishes,” Ortiz said.

The judge is expected to rule Friday on whether to allow Peña Villasano to wear the sash at Saturday’s graduation ceremony.

Similar disputes have unfolded in the United States this graduation season.

A transgender girl has sued a Mississippi school district for banning her from wearing a dress until she graduates. In Oklahoma, a former Native American student has filed a lawsuit against a school district for removing a feather, a sacred religious object, from her cap before the 2022 graduation ceremony.

What is considered proper graduation attire has been a source of contention for Native American students across the country. Nevada and Oklahoma on Thursday passed laws allowing Native American students to wear religious and cultural insignia at graduation ceremonies.

This year, Colorado passed a law banning Native American students from wearing such badges. Nearly a dozen states have similar laws.

Legal arguments often boil down to whether the First Amendment protects personal expression, in this case the belt, or whether it would be considered school-sponsored speech and could be limited to educational purposes.


Bedayn is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues.

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