School district can bar student from wearing graduation sash representing her Mexican-American heritage, a judge rules

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Grand Valley High School senior Naomi Peña Villasano (second from left) says the Pledge of Allegiance before she’s recognized by Colorado’s House of Representatives. May 5, 2023.

A U.S. District Court judge ruled Friday that a school district can bar a Western Slope student from wearing a sash representing her Mexican-American heritage at her graduation ceremony this weekend.

The ruling, authored by Judge Nina Wang, denied a request for an emergency restraining order that would have kept Garfield County School District 16 from enforcing its graduation dress code policies, allowing Grand Valley High School senior Naomi Peña Villansano to wear the sash at commencement Saturday. 

“Although it is true that many pieces of regalia that complement the cap and gown are worn at the graduate’s option, this Court finds that, in the context of Grand Valley High School’s graduation ceremony, any such expression is subject to the School District’s discretion and supervision as a matter of course,” the ruling stated.

Wang’s appointment to the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado was confirmed last year. 

The lawsuit is the culmination of a month-long dispute over whether Grand Valley High School senior Naomi Peña Villansano could wear a custom sash honoring her Mexican-American heritage during her graduation ceremony Saturday. District officials said the sash violated graduation policies, which limit such forms of expression to decorations on graduation caps. Peña Villansano and the attorneys representing her case argued this amounts to a violation of her First Amendment rights.

“This is textbook discrimination and violates Naomi's free speech,” said Ken Parreno, attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, which argued on behalf of Peña Villasano.

The emergency hearing was held Friday morning in Denver after Peña Villansano filed a lawsuit against Garfield County School District 16 late Wednesday. The lawsuit charged that the school district was violating free speech rights not only under federal law but also those protected by the Colorado Constitution. 

Additionally, Peña Villansano’s lawyers said the district was violating a 2006 Colorado law meant to ensure students can display the American flag. The sash in question features the flag of the United States on one side and that of Mexico on the other. 

School officials, however, said the matter was just one of policy. 

“The district has an interest in presenting unity among the students,” said Holly Ortiz, an attorney representing the Garfield County School District 16.

A key dispute in today’s hearing was which case law surrounding student free speech is applicable in this case — Tinker v. Des Moines or Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. Both cases deal with student speech. The Tinker case, which is cited by Peña Villansano’s lawsuit, upheld a student’s right to free expression, while Hazelwood established a standard for restricting that speech. Attorneys on Friday argued between which standard applied in this case. 

Attorneys for Garfield County School District 16 also referenced a 1998 case in which the U.S. District Court ruled in favor of school officials after two Arvada High School students filed a lawsuit to try and allow them to wear kente-cloth sashes at their graduation.