Douglas County High School moved their graduation to the Air Force Academy. Now undocumented students could be shut out

Jenny Brundin/CPR News
Undocumented graduating students and their families at a Douglas County high school may be denied access to ceremony.

Updated May 8, 2024, at 1:05 p.m.

Douglas County High School has announced it is moving its graduation ceremony from the Air Force Academy to EchoPark Stadium. Read the latest here.

The decision by Douglas County High School to host its graduation at the U.S. Air Force Academy in two weeks could mean some seniors are unable to attend their ceremony because they and their family members are undocumented.

The Air Force Academy’s policies are clear. As a military installation, it requires a military ID, passport or driver’s license to enter. For non-U.S. citizens, it requires special clearance using a passport. Although the Academy has worked with high school administrators on explaining those access requirements to attend the ceremony on May 22, some educators fear the barriers are still too high for some students and families. 

 “After I found out immediately I was like, ‘This can't be true, ' ” said one student who asked to not be identified fearing negative repercussions. “They left out a whole demographic of the student body.”

The student estimates there are more than two dozen students impacted by the decision and as many as 80 family members. Some may not have passports; others believe it’s too risky, they said.

Several educators question the district’s commitment to equity. The educators said they will not attend the in-person celebration either in support of those students and their family members who can’t meet the ID requirements.

For years, the high school in Castle Rock has hosted its graduation next door at the outdoor Douglas County Schools Stadium, which seats up to 3,000. But this year, in a notice to school families, the school’s graduation committee said the one thing it could never control was the weather. It said after several years of bad weather, it’s decided to move the graduation ceremony inside to the Air Force Academy’s Clune Arena, half an hour south.

“We have worked closely with our students and families to ensure they understand the security requirements at the Academy and that everyone who wishes to attend can do so,” said principal Anthony Kappas in a statement sent through the Douglas County School District.

CPR News asked the district if a student or family member who did not meet the security requirements but wished to attend the ceremony would be able to do so, but the district declined to answer.

According to the Douglas County School District’s website, four other high schools are graduating that same day. Three are holding their ceremony outside at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, including nearby Castle View High School.

On April 22, an Air Force Academy representative told families of graduates at a mandatory meeting that people 18 and older without proper ID could be issued a temporary pass. To get that pass, they have to submit a passport for a background check, as outlined on the Academy’s website. The representative said the military won’t report the information to immigration. 

USAFA Air Fiorce Academy visitor center construction
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The new visitor center under construction at the main entrance to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Oct. 20, 2023.

 “I know that there are families who are just scared in general,” said the Douglas County High School student who spoke to CPR News. “They went through a lot to get to this country and they don't particularly want to go to a military base. We have already had kids drop out of graduation because we've had families say that it's not worth the risk.”

The student said some students and teachers tried to make the administration aware of the issues when they learned about the access regulations on their own. They said graduates had no details about that until a month before graduation, leaving little time to secure documents. 

Some teachers worry that the temporary pass requirements put students in an uncomfortable situation of determining whether they can trust their information won’t be passed on to another government body.

“If I am undocumented, am I really going to give the federal government my information? Just because there is a path, doesn't mean that you're going to feel comfortable doing it,” said one educator who didn’t want to be identified for fear of repercussions.

“I can only imagine how they must be feeling and how intimidated they would be. The whole goal of K-12 education is to graduate kids. Why are we creating any sort of barrier?”

The student said no one should be left out of their own graduation.

“I think it was a very reckless, inconsiderate and imprudent decision on the administration's behalf.”

The student will be able to attend the graduation but had family members in a different country who were going to attend but decided not to come.

The school defends its choice of location

Principal Kappas said the Academy has been the host site for numerous high school graduation ceremonies over the years, as well as sporting events and other activities, including the Colorado High School State Band competition.

The Air Force Academy said for decades it has permitted local high schools to host commencement ceremonies at Clune Arena and they are managed in line with all existing access policies and procedures. 

Academy District 20, which has the Air Force Academy within its district boundaries, has high school graduations at the base.  However, all other school districts near the base aren’t hosting graduation ceremonies there. Larger high schools in Colorado Springs hold ceremonies at the Broadmoor World Arena or Colorado College’s Ed Robson Arena.

One way to enter the Air Force Academy grounds is to show a driver’s license. Since June 2023, undocumented people can obtain driver's licenses in Colorado, but the license states that it is “not valid for federal identification, voting or public benefit purposes.”  The Academy confirmed it is not a valid credential to enter the base.

In other cases, some students have grandparents from other countries who want to attend graduation. Those grandparents must submit passport information via email or in person at an Air Force Academy office. That process can take up to 72 hours but one can start the clearance process in advance and “no derogatory information” can be found.

Additionally, family members with prior felonies wanting to attend the ceremony will not be allowed on the base, according to Academy regulations.

Families were told they would be provided a QR code to help people register with the base. However, the QR code itself doesn’t provide access to the Academy.

Another teacher, who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions, recalls seeing a student visibly upset after learning about the location of the graduation ceremony. The student said their family members' grandparents were traveling from Mexico to attend the ceremony. They didn’t feel comfortable going through the documentation process.

“They're in their 80s … And so they're so proud of her and they haven't seen her in five years and they've made a special trip to come here to watch this and now they can't go,” said the teacher.

“If anyone needs to be celebrated, by having their entire family on a day that should be only meant for happiness … and now it's marred by the fact that there's people that won't be able to be let in because of where they came from. That really, really, really upsets me.”

The teacher said this cohort of students has been through so much already.

“These are pandemic kids … they came in their 9th-grade year, they were still dealing with the pandemic.”

Undocumented students have a legal right to education in the U.S.

The Supreme Court ruled 42 years ago in Plyler v. Doe that undocumented children are guaranteed access to K-12 public school education. They ruled that governments can’t punish immigrant children for the actions of their parents. In enrolling students, schools can’t require documents tied to immigration status, like driver’s licenses. It’s unclear if the ruling extends to requiring documentation for school events like graduation.

Some educators said the graduation location is at odds with the district’s equity policy that commits to establishing an inclusive culture “to ensure all students, staff and community members feel safe and valued.”

In a statement, the Douglas County Federation, the union for district teachers, said it believes that selecting the Air Force Academy for the graduation venue “has created many unnecessary issues regarding accessibility.”

“While not involved in the planning, we are now actively working with the district to ensure that families and friends of all graduates have safe access to the event and are hopeful that this venue will not be used in the future,” said President Lucy Squire.

The student is sad for their classmates who will miss graduation.

 “I have been alongside them for the past four years, and I've seen how hard they work and for them to not want to go or to be not able to go, it truly just breaks my heart.”