Garfield County student continues push to wear graduation sash as officials pledge to review policies

Naomi Peña Villasano, right, sits next to her mother, Ana Villasano, during a meeting of the Garfield County School District 16 Board of Education, March 16, in Parachute.

School officials in Garfield County say they will review graduation attire policies after a student was told she cannot wear a sash honoring her Mexican-American heritage — but this year’s ceremony will go forward under the current rules. 

The controversy kicked up in late April when Naomi Peña Villasano asked to wear the sash, which is adorned with the flags of Mexico and the United States. School officials denied the request, citing graduation attire policies that limit personal expression to decorations on the mortar boards of graduates’ caps. 

The high school senior and her supporters were especially frustrated after hearing from the superintendent that if she were allowed to wear the sash, the district could not prevent other students from displaying offensive symbols, like the Confederate flag. 

Peña Villasano spoke to the Garfield County School District 16 Board of Education during its regular meeting Tuesday night in Parachute. The Grand Valley High School senior again advocated to be allowed to wear the custom sash. 

“I’m a 200 percenter — 100% American and 100% Mexican. I was born in the United States but my parents are Mexican immigrants who came here for a better life,” Peña Villasano told the board. “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 meeting, Board President Lynn Shore read a statement addressing the issue, noting that any decision the board made would leave some in the community unhappy. 

“The district believes there is not adequate time to properly consider change to its rules and traditions prior to graduation, so the current rules and traditions will be in effect and fully enforced,” Shore said.

She went on, “because the issues raised have merit, and it is time to review the rules and traditions around our graduation ceremony, these will be reviewed during the 23/24 school year. All those impacted, including students, parents, staff, administration and the community members will be invited to participate. This will be done with the intent that the… graduation ceremony will continue without controversy.”

By the time Shore read the statement, many had left the meeting. Dozens attended, including a number of students sporting sashes similar to the one worn by Peña Villasano. 

Five other attendees spoke to the board, in addition to her, including Peña Villasano’s mother, Ana Villasano. Ana Villasano addressed the board in Spanish, translated into English by her daughter. 

“She is not offending anyone,” Naomi Peña Villasano said, translating for Ana Villasano. “You guys should allow all students to have cultural representation.”

The issue made its way to Denver earlier this month. After the dispute became public, Peña Villasano joined leaders at the state Capitol on Cinco de Mayo. State Rep. Elizabeth Velasco, whose district includes Parachute, spoke in the House chambers about the school district rejecting Peña Villasano’s sash. Coincidentally, that was the same week Gov. Jared Polis signed into law a bill ensuring that Native American students could wear traditional regalia during graduation ceremonies.

Members of the group Voces Unidas de las Montañas, a nonprofit that advocates for Latino communities in the central mountains, came to the school board meeting as well. They said they will continue to support Peña Villasano through her graduation.

Peña Villasano has previously said she intends to wear the sash, whether or not the district allows it. Grand Valley High School’s graduation ceremony is May 27.